By: Marcina Zaccaria
“Brendan at The Chelsea” is based on the controversial playwright Brendan Behan, in the turbulent last weeks of his short life, when he lived at The Chelsea Hotel in New York City. This Lyric Theatre Belfast production opened in 2011, and it is the Lyric Theatre’s debut production in New York.
Brendan Behan, portrayed by Adrian Dunbar, was one of the most celebrated Irish writers. His most known work, “The Hostage” played in New York in 1960. At the Chelsea Hotel, he connected with long term residents Katherine Dunham, dancer and civil rights activist, and George Kleinsinger, a composer. After enjoying success on Broadway and fame on the Jack Paar show, he passed away in 1964, at the age of 41.
Written by Brendan Behan’s niece, Janet Behan, “Brendan at The Chelsea” is smart and sincere. Not really a history play or a character study, Behan’s script brings out the glory and the suffering of an Irish writer in New York. Janet Behan frames Brendan’s necessity for love and acceptance around moments of hardship and success. The references to the Broadway and the pop culture of the 60s were refreshing. Brendan Behan was an artist who profoundly needed to be around other creative souls, and his tragic addition to alcohol, his failing health due to diabetes, and his inability to honor fidelity in his marriage, never seem like trite, movie of the week fare.
Adrian Dunbar’s performance was careful, thoughtful, and deeply true to the play. The supporting cast was also polished, and it is refreshing to see this international cast in New York. Samantha Pearl, as the dancer and assistant Lianne, provides a window to the bright, bouncy world of Chelsea, sometimes outside of Brendan’s reach. Brendan’s friend George, played by Richard Orr, was a solid sounding board for Brendan’s joys, worries, and fears. Beatrice, his wife, played by Pauline Hutton, was a strong foil. Following them through dreamy vacations at Fire Island, we catch a glimpse of Brendan’s devil may care lifestyle.
A smart set by Stuart Marshall shows all of the charm and bohemian lore of The Chelsea Hotel. The look of The Chelsea is fun, upbeat, and celebratory of a bohemian spirit. Lamps with lace shades, fading wallpaper, a desk cluttered with Seven Up bottles, diabetes pills, and letters from Ireland illuminate Brendan’s sometimes difficult world. Also the Costume Designer, Stuart Marshall was able to pull together period costumes that were fun and flattering.
It is of note that Adrian Dunbar, the lead actor of this project, also directed this play. The staging, sometimes evoking portraiture, was fresh. Mr. Dunbar and the other performers were attentive to the rhythms and dialects of the beatnik era. Actors looked at home onstage whether they were honoring modern dance or classic news reels. Monologues brought out nuance, and ensemble songs made you feel like you were sometimes witnessing a sing-along at your favorite Irish bar.
Dunbar’s performance of Brendan’s downward spiral at the end of the show is particularly compelling. In seeing Brendan struggling with his delusions and sorrows, he is snide, confrontational, and unable to clean up the mess of his life. We hear about the stink of booze and his inability to complete his book. As he pleads and bargains with his wife, dark shadows offstage provide dramatic visuals of the writer and his demise.
“Brendan at the Chelsea” plays a limited five-week engagement through Sunday, October 6th at the Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street, on Theatre Row. Tickets are available by calling Telecharge at 212.239.6200 or visiting www.BrendanChelsea.com. This off-Broadway run launches a multi-city tour across Ireland, which will include Dublin, a return to Belfast, and will culminate in Derry