September 25, 2013

"Brendan at the Chelsea" Offers a Portrait of the Poet-Playwright Best Suited for His Fans

Maybe if I’d known more about Brendan Behan, I would have had a better time at Brendan at the Chelsea, the gloomy drama about the Irish poet and playwright Brendan Behan that’s playing at Theatre Row’s Acorn Theatre through Oct. 6.  

Because the audience at the performance my friend Ellie and I attended, filled with Behan fans so devoted that they actually mouthed some of his famous lines along with the actors, seemed quite into this reenactment of the writer's descent into an early, alcohol-induced death at the age of 41.  

I could understand some of what pleased them. Written by Behan’s playwright niece Janet Behan (click here to read an interview with her), Brendan at the Chelsea sidesteps one big mistake that so often trips up bioplays: instead of trying to portray the poet’s whole life story, it focuses on one pivotal period of it. 

In this case that's the early ‘60s when Behan moved to New York, stayed at the famous Chelsea Hotel and wrote, or actually dictated because he could no longer hold a pen or use a typewriter, his book “Brendan Behan’s New York.”
There’s also the fact that this production, which originated at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, boasts a lovely performance by the Irish actor Adrian Dunbar, who also directed the show. Still, I found my attention wandering and I couldn’t help sneaking peeks at my watch.
The problem is that not much happens during the play’s roughly two-and-a-half hours running time. And I couldn’t figure out why I was being told this melancholy and predictable tale. 

It's hardly a revelation that Behan was a drinker or had a way with the blarney.  Even the play’s allusions to his bisexuality, come as little surprise since his first play The Quare Fellow deals with the subject even though it was written in the 1950s when gay activity was illegal in Ireland.

Brendan at the Chelsea includes references to that play and Behan’s other work (about which again, to my shame, I knew very little) and to his marital difficulties (about which I actually wanted to know more).   

But basically, the Behan in the play just drinks, passes out and then drinks some more. In between, there are hallucinatory scenes about his past gay affairs and other drunken encounters.  
Additional diversions are provided by visits from his neighbors, the composer George Kleinsinger and Lianne, a fictional stand-in for the dancers from choreographer Katherine Dunham’s company who helped to take care of him. 

All of the actors in the five-member cast, who, with the exception of Dunbar, play multiple parts, are good, particularly Pauline Hutton as Behan’s long suffering wife Beatrice.
It wasn’t enough for me but Ellie was drawn in enough to stay for part of a talk back with Janet Behan.  Of course, a poet herself, Ellie went into the play already a Behan fan. 

I, on the other hand, ducked out right after the play ended and, despite what I'd just seen on stage—or maybe because of it— went across the street to the West Bank Cafe for a drink. 

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