Brendan at the Chelsea is a masterful production. The play, in its North American debut, allows us to dance in Brendan Behan’s footsteps. It’s filled with Behan’s own words, superb acting, and a story that will simultaneously break your heart and bring you through gleeful pain to joy.
The setting is (mostly) a room at New York’s bohemian Hotel Chelsea in the 1960s, with flashbacks to Behan’s arrival in New York, early residence at the Algonquin Hotel (before he wore out his welcome) and Broadway glory.
Brendan at the Chelsea opens with a hung over Behan facing the day. His publisher awaits material for the next book. His wife, Beatrice (brilliantly portrayed by Pauline Hutton), is in transit on the QEII in the Atlantic. His lover repeatedly calls him, searching for the words “I love you,” which Behan ne’er utters. His feisty assistant Lianne (Samantha Pearl) tries to keep him in line.
Supporting cast members Richard Orr and Chris Robinson are perfect, complementing Dunbar with precision.
Likewise, Stuart Marshall (set and costume design) and James C. McFetridge (lighting design) have painstakingly crafted the stage scenes.
There’s more than enough humor in the play to ward off what would otherwise be a depression-inducing show. But the Irish are the world’s experts at the use of humor in the face of death or deadly times. Behan, in his life, took it all to another level. Joyce, usually hailed as Ireland’s brilliant master of words, is rivaled by Behan, who, in a single-handed gesture (his play, The Hostage), changed New York’s theater scene in the bohemain 1960s.
New York loved him for it and, in turn, New York became Behan’s love: “I am not afraid to admit that New York is the greatest city on the face of God’s earth,” wrote Behan. The playwright made the town his own. Sometimes owning it too much, showing up on stage more than a few sheets to the wind on stage at his own play “The Hostage.”
In the play, during a moment of Beatrice’s reminiscence, the song Moon River plays, reminding us that Behan’s life was ever a love letter to New York. But there was never a farewell to Ireland. And when Dunbar’s Behan sang in Irish Gaelic, an elderly woman beside me (with a beautiful brogue herself) cried.
This is not to say that Behan enamored all. Some, especially his own country folk, despised him for bringing a bad light on Ireland. But Behan needed no approval from those who detested his lifestyle. His was not the life of the suburbs and suits, the facades of each of which he hated.
Adrian Dunbar who directs and plays the role of Behan is stunning in his strength. We enter Behan’s mind, his soul even. We feel the struggle of the artist. We love him despite his moments as the cad, his mistreatment of his wife, not through physical abuse, but through utter neglect. Behan leaves Dublin without telling anyone, including his wife.
Beatrice loves him despite all of this. She will not give up a life-long love simply because Brendan decides he wants freedom. In his most downtrodden, pathetic physical state she loves him. Pauline Hutton is commanding in her role, demanding the audience’s attention, which naturally clings magnetically to Brendan. Her steadfastness as a devoted friend draws us to her. Hutton is so much more than simply believable. She is enchantingly real. She’s painfully aware of what’s going on. And despite, or because of, her awareness, she chooses to remain steadfast to her cause: her marriage and love for Brendan Behan. Her steadfastness is a foil to Brendan’s alcoholism and his sexuality, which, in it’s non-definition is all over the map. He is so almost stereotypically Irish in his maleness. Well, aside from his forays into gay moments. Long moments.
What makes Behan so disgustingly lovable is his honesty with words.
Like Behan’s own writing, Brendan at the Chelsea doesn’t pour layers of syrup over the human being. He’s not romanticized. We love him, as we love Beatrice, for realness.
This is one of the strongest productions I’ve seen, on or off Broadway. Time and again, the most powerful shows are not necessarily in the big houses. Off Broadway shows take risks, sometimes big ones. It’s fitting that Brendan at the Chelsea had its North American debut off-Broadway. Like Behan, Brendan at the Chelsea took risks. Unlike Behan, the play survived the risks.
Brendan at the Chelsea, written by Behan’s niece, Janet Behan, first developed and performed at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, Ireland, made its way to New York City this year.
From the Playbill notes: “Fifty years ago Brendan Behan took New York City to his heart and in turn the city embraced him. The Lyric Theatre hopes today’s New York theatre-goers embrace this production and recognize their city and themselves on stage in our home away from home on 42nd Street.”
This theatre-goer embraced the play fondly. My only disappointment was that I caught the play the day before closing. I’d like to experience it again. And again.
I reserve standing ovations for the best of the best. At Brendan at the Chelsea I was on my feet as soon as the stage went dark.
Sadly, the play ends today with a 3 p.m. performance. When it plays again, hopefully in New York, don’t miss it. In the meantime, I’ll be watching the likes of Pauline Hutton, an emerald of an actor, and Adrian Dunbar, who brought Brendan to life in New York City.
As for the lad himself, Brendan noted, “There’s no bad publicity except an obituary.” On those terms, he only had one bad review in his life.
The end came far too early for this brilliant writer. Brendan Behan died at the age of 41 on March 20, 1964. He deservingly received an IRA honor guard in Ireland’s biggest funeral since that of Michael Collins.