94. BRENDAN AT THE CHELSEA
Brendan Behan was very much on my radar as a young theatre student back in 1960 when his play THE HOSTAGE came over from England in Joan Littlewoods’s memorable production; it blew the Broadway establishment away with its blaring irreverence, political provocations (Behan was active in the IRA), and sexual ribaldry. I recall laughing hysterically at its mixture of scripted and improvisational performance, especially when, in a Littlewood stroke of genius, the actors introduced material ripped from that very day’s newspapers and riffed on it. The play’s freewheeling style reflected that of its rambunctious author, a sloppy, overweight, Irish poet, fiction writer, and playwright whose riotous drunken escapades were pop culture fodder, and who was escalated to national attention through his appearances as a garrulous guest on late night talk shows hosted by Jack Paar and David Susskind. After living at the Algonquin Hotel, he moved into the rattier but more culturally offbeat Chelsea on W. 23rd Street, where artists like dancer Katherine Dunham and composer George Kleinsinger resided. In New York, he hoped to find a new direction to his troubled life. Sadly, drink and diabetes did him in and he died in Dublin in 1964 at 41.
Adrian Dunbar. Photo: Steffan Hill.
Today, Behan seems little more than a footnote in mid-20th-century literary and theatrical history, his output relatively small and largely forgotten in America, although I suspect he remains a cultural icon in his homeland. One of his last works was a book about his New York experiences, so BRENDAN AT THE CHELSEA, written by Behan’s niece, Janet Behan, and now at the Acorn, is a sort of international homecoming for the troubled artist. It comes to New York from Belfast’s Lyric Theatre, with an all-Irish company led by Adrian Dunbar, who also directed, in the lead. The play and production, while flawed, have much that an audience might appreciate, but the house was only half filled at the performance I saw. I seriously wonder if part of the problem is the lack of contemporary interest in a writer whose career never fulfilled its promise, who spent his days in self-destructive behavior, and who may be more famous for his erratic personality than his artistic output, however valuable it was. What meaning are we supposed to derive from all this?, asked my guest as we left the theatre. Other than seeing it as yet another cautionary tale of how the bottle could destroy a major talent, something that has been seen in countless movies and plays, I had little to offer in response; still, it serves as a good an introduction to the man, if not the work, for those who might be looking for one.
The single set is of Behan’s seedy room at the Chelsea, nicely re-imagined by Stuart Marshall and effectively lit—if sometimes too dimly—by James McFetridge, where, because of the numbness in his hands, he can no longer write and must speak his thoughts into a tape recorder as he struggles to meet his publisher’s deadline; that, in fact, is how his last two books, including Brendan Behan’s New York, were produced. While the play includes flashback scenes of Behan's experiences in other New York locales, they all are enacted within the hotel room, with the versatile small cast taking on multiple roles. Everything centers on Behan, his ailments, his marital problems, his bisexual infidelities, and his tippling; however, without a previous investment in the man and his achievements, it is not easy to care much about the goings on. We see him suffer painful attacks brought on by his sickness, and there is a lot of talk about his boozing and sexual interests, but, for all his verbal dexterity and abundant Irish charm, it takes some time before we begin to care much about this iconoclastic, loudmouthed lush.
One problem is that the play takes too long before it makes clear who Brendan Behan is and why we should be concerned about him. Those who aren’t already familiar with his life and work will have to be patient before they learn what’s going on. The play’s structure is also problematic, with a first act that includes most of the flashbacks, some of them fanciful, while, apart from a nightmare located in a hospital, the second act is largely straightforward realism leading to a dramatic encounter between the besotted writer and Beatrice (an excellent Pauline Hutton), his faithful but frustrated wife, who learns on her arrival from Ireland that he wants to divorce her and marry someone else.
What plot there is focuses largely on Behan’s gradual disintegration over a period of 21 hours as he fools nobody but himself about his attempts to stay on the wagon; the brunt of his marital conflict arrives late in the second act. Chelsea resident George (Richard Orr), presumably George Kleinsinger, appears in several scenes to offer Behan solace and advice, puzzling the suffering Behan by his apparent happiness. The play makes detours into such things as raucous press interviews, a night spent by the writer with his wife in a gay hotel on Fire Island, and the time he intruded into a performance of THE HOSTAGE at the Cort Theatre and had the bewildered actors and audience sing along with him. One odd scene has a sailor (Chris Robinson) performing fellatio on Behan as Lianne (Samantha Pearl), the pretty young black ballet dancer who works as his caretaker, knocks on the door as Behan, intent on enjoying the moment, insists that she wait outside while he puts his clothes on. When he finally lets her in, the sailor calmly walks off into another room, leaving it unclear if the he was even there or if it was all a fantasy.
The play’s raison d’être is to introduce us to this larger-than-life lover of blarney, but 2 hours and 15 minutes of him, even in the strong performance of Mr. Dunbar, can be a bit much. Dunbar has strong vocal and acting chops, and bears a fuzzy facial resemblance to Behan (and to Liam Neeson). Behan was 37 in 1960 and Dunbar is a youthful 55, but he’s much handsomer and in better physical shape than the original, even with what is probably some abdominal padding to provide a hint of Behan’s girth. His performance grows in strength and dimension as the play proceeds, especially in the second act when he confronts his wife, but his authentic Irish accent (he is, after all, from Northern Ireland) does occasionally get slurry and requires close attention if you’re going to catch all the allusions mingled in his blather.
When the play ended, my guest, hobbled by crutches, and I took the elevator down from the theatre, located on the building’s third floor. Among the other occupants was a former colleague of mine, a well-known critic and theatre scholar, now in his mid-80s. As we started to descend I asked him if he remembered seeing the 1960 production of THE HOSTAGE, but at that moment the doors opened onto the second floor, where the bathrooms are located and this gentleman, leaning on a cane, said only, “I have to get off before I beshit myself.” As the ladies and gents still on the elevator looked at one another with a mixture of bemusement and distaste I felt, surely, the spirit of Brendan Behan was with us at that moment.