by John Kearns
“To America, my new-found land:” reads the quote from Brendan Behan on the plaque outside the Chelsea Hotel, “the man that hates you hates the human race.”
The humanity of Brendan Behan and his sympathy with his fellow humans form the heart of Brendan at the Chelsea, an engaging and moving drama written by Janet Behan, the famous author’s niece, and imported from the Lyric Theatre in Belfast. With a bravura performance by Adrian Dunbar in the title role, Brendan at the Chelsea offers a backstage view behind the stage-Irish persona Brendan Behan used to court attention and publicity. Directing himself and the ensemble cast in the play, Dunbar is lyrical, funny, soulful, and committed in the emotionally and physically demanding role of the famous/infamous “drinker with a writing problem” in the waning years of his short life: declaiming Behan’s words into a tape recorder because he could no longer hold a pen, struggling to drink cups of tea with trembling hands, coughing, enduring headaches and nausea, and throwing himself upon stage.
Adrian Dunbar as Brendan Behan
Though much of Behan’s behavior in the play is pitiful and unforgivably selfish, Dunbar portrays the loveable side of the man and shows us — through tender flashback scenes with his wife, Beatrice, and a moment of appreciation for the youth and beauty of the young dancer-caretaker, Lianne — why the people around him remain loyal and show great kindness to him.
With a remarkable set that strikes a seedy and down-at-the-heels note, the drama takes place entirely in the Behan’s room at the Chelsea Hotel, the well known refuge of artists here in “the city where you are least likely to be bitten by a wild sheep.”
The audience is brought up to speed through the hungover Behan’s sparring with the charming and versatile Lianne (Samantha Pearl), opening morning mail that contains a picture of a son he has had with his mistress, Suzanne, and through a series of flashbacks played ably and energetically by Pauline Hutton as Beatrice Behan, and Richard Orr, Chris Robinson, and Pearl in multiple roles.
Samantha Pearl plays Lianne and other roles
During quick-paced scenes that portray Behan on his way to his appearance on the Tonight Show with Jack Paar, his throwing quips to a group of reporters, and an encounter Behan has with some ardent homosexual fans on Fire Island, Orr, Robinson, and Pearl are comical and convincing. There were moments in the first act in which the timing seemed a bit off but that can likely be attributed to jet lag and the performance’s being early in the run.
Richard Orr also plays Behan’s upstairs neighbor, George, whom Behan can hear composing music for children on his piano. The noise doesn’t bother Behan, he says. Rather he finds it soothing. There is a clear sympathy between the two neighbors and fellow artists. Orr does fine work capturing the character of the struggling musician who has found friendship with the less disciplined writer.
Behan (Dunbar) and Beatrice (Hutton) with adoring fans Robinson and Orr on Fire Island
Other than the scene with the reporters, we see very little of the Behan’s public shenanigans. In his room at the Chelsea and in the flashbacks, he is charming and witty, vulnerable, and open-minded about race and sexuality. And, he suffers greatly with his struggle with alcohol. The mood of the play is mostly serious and there are not as many laughs as you might expect two hours with Brendan Behan to produce.
Behan (Dunbar) and Beatrice (Hutton) share bon mots with New York reporters Robinson, Orr, and Pearl
In Brendan at the Chelsea, Janet Behan is forthright about her uncle’s demons. Some of these are familiar: his impoverished childhood, his past as an IRA volunteer who has spent time in British reformatories and jails, his alcoholism, and his conflicts with his fellow Dubliners who seem eager to see him taken down a peg. But one demon that is unfamiliar to most is Behan’s bisexuality.
Brendan at the Chelsea shows Behan dancing and receiving fellatio from a neighbor at the Chelsea (Robinson). He also dances the Madison with two men on Fire Island. His bisexuality is something that has hardly been emphasized in other portrayals of Behan’s life and perhaps helps explain why Behan was so attracted to the freedom of New York City and so reluctant to return to early ‘60s Ireland.
Whereas much of the first act is exposition, the second act of Brendan at the Chelsea contains the most moving and dramatic scenes of the play. The first is between Behan and his neighbor, George (Orr), who tries gently and subtly to convince Behan to seek help for his alcoholism. As Behan insists that he can beat the disease himself as he has for periods in the past, George tells him that he has met a doctor who says that alcohol addiction is not something that can be conquered with one’s willpower alone. George leaves the doctor’s number with Behan, though there seems to be little hope that the playwright will dial it.
The other is the scene in which Beatrice Behan (Hutton) arrives at the Chelsea Hotel fresh from Queen Elizabeth luxury liner. She realizes right away that, something and, more to the point, someone has come between herself and Brendan. When she finds out that her husband is in love with Suzanne and that the rumors of the child he has had with her are true, she scoffs at the idea of someone like Suzanne’s taking care of Brendan the way she has. She wonders if Suzanne will be around when Brendan has wet his pants and vomited on himself and if Suzanne will hold his head during Brendan’s seizures as Beatrice has. Despite the news, Beatrice says that she still loves him and will always be in love with him and, despite his wishes, she will honor her wedding vows and not divorce him. Hutton gives a stirring performance as a very determined woman, perhaps the strongest-willed person in the play.
Brendan at the Chelsea does not have a great deal of dramatic conflict and it seems that if more could have been made of the competition for Behan’s heart between Beatrice and Suzanne, there could have been a tauter drama.
And in the end, Beatrice Behan turns out to be right — Suzanne’s commitment to Brendan is not nearly as strong as he had thought — and Brendan sheepishly sends Lianne to fetch his wife.
The play ends the way it started with Behan recording one of his paeans to New York City, a place where he, like so many misfits from around the world, found a tolerant home.
There was a talkback after the September 6th show with 1stIrish Festival founder, George Heslin, and the playwright and cast. Janet Behan and the cast took questions from Heslin and then from the large audience who remained in the theatre after the show to discuss this production about a dyed-in-the-wool Dubliner in New York that was begun in London, was moved to the newly refurbished Lyric Theatre in Belfast, and was brought across the sea to the New York City Behan loved.
George Heslin with Janet Behan, Dunbar, Orr, Robinson, Hutton, and Pearl
Brendan at the Chelsea runs through October 6th at the Acorn Theatre at 410 W. 42nd Street. Visit: http://www.lyrictheatre.co.uk/brendanchelsea/.
Irish American Writers and Artists Inc. is having a special night at the show on September 19th. Members can purchase tickets at a 40% discount and enjoy the talkback and the company of their fellow members as we have a drink in honor of a man who had too many. If you are an IAW&A member, reserve your ticket at this email address firstname.lastname@example.org and send a check for $37.75 to:
Irish American Writers & Artists, Inc
511 Avenue of the Americas #304
New York, NY 10011
See you there!