del Rosso review: Brendan at the Chelsea

The terrific Irish actor Adrian Dunbar is appearing off-Broadway on Theatre Row 42nd Street, with a very fine cast that he also directed, in “Brendan at the Chelsea.” The play has come in from the Lyric Belfast, and is working alongside Origin’s 1st Irish Festival.

Dunbar plays the title role of celebrated Irish writer and drinker Brendan Behan with relish and real guts, and it’s easy to see why Dunbar would champion “Brendan at the Chelsea”; it’s a role of a lifetime, and Dunbar never leaves the stage. The play also has the stamp of authenticity, written by Behan’s niece, Janet Behan.

Set in the glorious past of New York City’s Chelsea Hotel in 1960, Behan is juggling: his wife, his lover (who has just given birth to his child), the book he is meant to be writing about New York, his nagging agent (as the chapters of the book have not been forthcoming), his bi-sexuality, his health, but mainly, the demon drink. The latter is a losing battle, and that struggle is well dramatized by both the playwright and Dunbar. Brendan Behan died at the age of 41, in 1964.

The cast is stellar, with Pauline Hutton as Beatrice, Behan’s long-suffering but loving, spirited wife; Samantha Pearl as Lianne, Dunbar’s minder; Richard Orr as George, Behan’s neighbor at the Chelsea and Chris Robinson in a variety of “idealized male” roles.

I wish that “Brendan at the Chelsea” were a better play. I don’t believe it illuminated anything about Behan’s childhood in Ireland, the poverty he grew up in, or the fact that he was jailed at 17 for being part of the IRA, and was only released because of a general amnesty for IRA prisoners and internees in 1946. Behan’s prison experiences were of critical importance to his future writing career. I learned more fascinating information at the talkback given by the cast and playwright that I attended after the play; and thought the fact that Brendan was the favorite of his wealthy grandmother and was a bridge between his family and the grandmother in order to keep them afloat, should have been included. Instead, Janet Behan decided to concentrate almost entirely on his adult personal life. But people are they way are for reasons of nurture (or not) as well as nature; flashbacks to Brendan’s childhood would have provided a window to understanding the man, as well as the artist.