By JK Clarke
The tale of a hopeless alcoholic drinking his life away is a timeless one. Most often it’s a pathetic and painful story, like the films Lost Weekend or Leaving Las Vegas; other times it’s comical, as in the majority of W.C. Fields’ quasi-autobiographical films; and still others, it’s steeped in the romanticization of artists, especially famous writers.
Tennessee Williams, Raymond Chandler, Charles Bukowski, Billie Holliday . . . the list goes on forever. It’s to this last category that belongs Irish poet and playwright Brendan Behan, who, like Dylan Thomas, did a good deal of his lethal drinking while living at the Chelsea Hotel. And that’s where we first encounter Behan, peeling his eyes open after sleeping off a rough one in a cheap single bed next to a writing desk.
Brendan at the Chelsea (playing at the The Acorn on Theater Row through October 6) is a snapshot of Behan in the early 1960s, shortly before his death from alcoholism-induced diabetes. It should be a sad, horrifying display of the ravages of drink — and it is. But, it’s also more than that, which is a tribute both to the man himself, an often charming and affable fellow, as well as to his niece, Janet Behan, who scribed this endearing piece.
Behan is supposed to be writing a novel about New York, so he is living there to get a feel for the city, which he genuinely adores: “That’s why I like this hotel, why I love New York; all the people like me who don’t belong at home . . .” But both writer’s block and drinker’s drink are keeping him from anything but a few sentences at a time, recited into a dictaphone. What we witness is his playful interactions with neighbors and caretakers, as well as his sometimes romantic, sometimes tempestuous relations with his wife, Beatrice, who has sailed over from Ireland and caught him with his pants down, both figuratively and literally.
Janet Behan’s terrific script and Adrian Dunbar’s (who also directs) absolutely riveting portrayal of Behan — he doesn’t just play Brendan, he inhabits him — are the core of what make the play so captivating. His pain and deterioration seep through his witty remarks and clever asides. Adding to that performance, Stuart Marshall’s costuming and spot on set design perfectly portray both the era and the very essence of the Chelsea Hotel, which is in the unique position of playing the role of an influential character in this story.
The rest of the cast is strong, particularly Pauline Hutton as Behan’s wife Beatrice, a lovely Irish lass could do better but can’t leave him in spite of both herself and him: “ I won’t divorce you, not under any circumstances . . . For some unfathomable reason I’m still in love with you.” And, Richard Orr as George, a fellow hotel denizen, who happens to be a successful and respected composer is exactly what you’d expect from another artist living in the hotel: chummy, always there in a pinch, and, sadly, sometimes enabling. The entire cast is Irish or English and were exported from the Belfast production, which presents a problem for the American production. When the play ran in Ireland, the American characters’ accents probably seemed excellent. But in New York the nuances of both the period and the New York City regional and cultural accents are significant. Yes, they sound American but, unfortunately, they don’t sound like the type of Americans they’re playing.
Brendan at the Chelsea is a revealing snapshot of the man at the end of his short, troubled life. Despite all his flaws his literary contributions speak for themselves and his personae is one to whom we can raise a glass. But please: just one.
Brendan at the Chelsea. Through October 6 at the Acorn Theater (Theater Row, 410 West 42nd Street). www.BrendanChelsea.com