Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Lyric Theatre, 'Brendan at the Chelsea': Beauty and the Behan

Project Arts Centre
Nov 12-16

My review of Brendan at the Chelsea by Janet Behan coming up just as soon as I phone a publisher to find out where my husband is ...

"The man who hates New York hates humanity", rolls one line of Brendan Behan's new book, as he sits in his Chelsea Hotel suite flattering the city's lofty symbol of freedom: the Statue of Liberty. The hotel is known for housing artists such as Arthur Miller and Mark Twain as they punch out their latest manuscripts, and the bawdy Behan, acclaimed Irish dramatist and author of The Quare Fellow, The Hostage, and Borstal Boy, is contractually obligated by a publisher to produce a new book. This stage tribute to him, sharply scripted by his niece Janet Behan, suggests that his flight to America and its symbols of freedom are in the spirit of escaping the pains of home which, by default as an Irish individual who flees Ireland in a play, we might expect to catch up with him.

Adrian Dunbar directs and plays Behan in his attempt at the straight and narrow, drinking soda pop instead of brandy in an attempt to kick the drinking habit that is quickly killing him. A dancer Liane (Behan was good friends with the choreographer Katherine Denham, who often sent members of her dance troupe to assist him) stoops to his aid, helping him to take his medication while often ear-bent by Behan's wild prose. Because Dunbar has all the bark of the Borstal Boy, a penchant for piping profanity but also legitimate fear; the wife is expected to arrive in town any day now.

Through drunken hazes Behan stumbles upon the rise and fall of his marriage (Pauline Hutton brings big charm as the playwright's wife), his run-ins with the press at the Broadway premiere of The Hostage ("What's the message of the play?" "There is no message. But if you find one send it on to me") and a drunken rummage onto the stage during a live performance. The play also swerves towards Behan's homosexuality as he waltzes intimately with a Broadway actor whose costume suggests his role as the The Hostage's sassy navvy Rio Rita, possibly the first homosexual character to blaze across an Irish stage (and certainly the most scandalous).

Towards the end we see Behan unraveled by the demon in the bottle as Dunbar carefully rolls his words in a sad description of a hand reaching for a glass of scotch. He laments his loss of the ability to hold a pen, and even draws on the media's fond accusation that Joan Littlewood, the director collaborator crucial to his international success, was the true author of The Hostage. Another nerve is his relationship to Dublin, which he's convinced will be the death of him. Behan is made part of a tradition in Irish playwriting which depicts escapees who can't escape Ireland. Worse, they can't seem to make a home anywhere else.

But the triumph is how it undeniably captures the spirit of the immense playwright himself in a form close to his own darkly comic fusion of theatre and music hall, where there is always room for a song, and Dunbar, close to the coy Behan, works behind our backs, pulls the wool over our eyes, until revealing the sensitivity of a man who will sweetly sing to a child. We're given a human who lived so passionately so as to set ablaze anyone around him. And in the final moments he wraps us all into a community who, like the characters in his plays, persist and continue after a grave is dug and filled.

What did everybody else think?

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