“Brendan at the Chelsea” at the Acorn Theatre (Closed October 6, 2013)

Written by Janet Behan
Directed by Adrian Dunbar
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre reviews Limited

When the synopsis of a dramatic performance offers more information than the performance itself, the creative team needs to perhaps evaluate ways to more effectively translate script to stage or examine the script itself to see if it needs the intervention of a dramaturge. Such is the case with Janet Behan’s recent offering about the life and times of her famed uncle’s early nineteen sixties stay at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City. Although Adrian Dunbar successfully portrays the outer layers of Brendan Behan’s persona, his performance remains at the more superficial levels of characterization. The audience knows the Irish playwright had difficulty with alcohol and bickered often with those who tried to support him and care for him. And the audience knows he was an incapable of allowing himself the rapture of redemption and release from suffering. However, the audience comes to know little else of significance about why this man was “all things to all men” despite consistently fine performances by Mr. Dunbar and the other members of the cast of the Lyric Theatre tour production at 59E59 Theater B.
There are unfortunately no windows into Brendan Behan’s soul in Ms. Behan’s “Brendan at the Chelsea.” The audience discovers little about his creative energy or his demons or the corpus of work that tormented genius contributed to the Irish and the American literary canon. Did Behan’s suffering contribute to his genius or detract from it? Did those who loved him feel any resentment toward him? The audience does discover repeatedly that Brendan does not want to reconcile with his estranged wife Beatrice: nor does he wish to return to his estranged homeland of Ireland or to his family he abandoned there.

In varying degrees of non-sobriety, Brendan Behan dictates his tribute to New York (the book that appeared after his death) in a small reel-to-reel tape recorder in his hotel room at the Chelsea. Some of these dictations are brief; some are lengthy monologues the playwright uses to provide exposition or proffer evidence of the protagonist’s deep admiration for the cultural and literary diversity of New York City.

Throughout the lengthy play, Ms. Behan uses flashbacks and dream sequences (perhaps hallucinations) to provide background to Brendan’s present malaise and fractured productivity. These scenes, though entertaining in themselves, provide little information about how Brendan ended up in New York City: what precisely was it this writer was escaping from? The audience sees nothing of Mr. Behan’s interactions with the other residents of the Chelsea Hotel except a composer George (Richard Orr) who does his best to convince Behan the time has come to sober up for good.

It is difficult to feel for the characters in “Brendan at the Chelsea.” Brendan not only abuses himself, he also verbally abuses his caregiver Lianne (Samantha Pearl), his wife Beatrice (Pauline Hutton), and anyone else who is close to him. He accepts an advance from his publisher and does little work on the book. He cheats on his wife and has a child with his paramour. None of these conflicts (ripe for plot building) are developed and exposition never gives way to an interesting story. Although a homoerotic dream sequence and more than one homoerotic flashback allude to questions about Brendan Behan’s sexual status, this interesting part of his life is never explored. Emotionally flat scene follows emotionally flat scene leading to a somewhat disappointing conclusion.

Perhaps Mr. Dunbar should have left direction of “Brendan at the Chelsea” to someone other than himself: it is difficult for an actor to direct himself with sufficient emotional distance and dramatic perspective. “Brendan at the Chelsea” leaves the audience wanting more from Mr. Dunbar, more from the rest of the ensemble cast, and more insight into the recesses of the soul of the man who loved so much the heart and soul of New York City.