Everything about Brendan at the Chelsea feels perfectly calculated to induce sleep: the soothingly dim lighting, the rainstorm sound effects, the gentle recitation of sentimental Irish literature...all that is missing is a soundtrack by Enya. This bio-play about infamous Irish playwright Brendan Behan is making its U.S. premiere at the Acorn Theatre in a production by Belfast's Lyric Theatre. Kudos to those who can sit through the whole two hours without nodding off. The rest of us frail mortals might want to hit the downstairs bar for a cup of coffee before curtain.
Penned by the subject's niece Janet Behan, Brendan at the Chelsea focuses on the final whiskey-soaked weeks of Brendan Behan's life, when he was cloistered in the famed Chelsea Hotel. Behan (Adrian Dunbar) awakes on a messy single bed in his hotel suite, painfully hungover. He has blasted past the deadline for a book he has promised his publisher. His procrastination is compounded by the fact that he is unable to type because of the crippling effects of his diabetes. He is frequently visited by ballerina Lianne (Samantha Pearl), who serves as a kind of pro bono personal assistant, keeping Behan in tea and (unsuccessfully) away from booze. He also regularly entertains visits from George (Richard Orr), the jazz composer upstairs who seems far too stable and productive to be a convincing resident of the Hotel Chelsea.
As the play progresses, we are treated to flashbacks from Behan's scandalous life and career, including a sexually ambiguous trip to Fire Island Pines (with his wife!) and the time Behan drunkenly stumbled onto the stage of the Cort Theatre during a performance of his play The Hostage (his first and only on Broadway) and led the audience in song. While dramatic potential abounds, it collectively amounts to a tremendous amount of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Rather than a dramatic arc building to some grander point or reckoning with Behan's legacy, the play feels like a series of unrelated events in the life of a sad alcoholic with negligible storytelling abilities.
Playwright Janet Behan notes that an impetus to tell Brendan's story was to answer the question, "Was your uncle really a genius, or just a drunk?" She mostly punts on this point, although it is far easier to see a pathetic drunk masquerading as a genius in the anecdotes presented. Since Behan is unable to type, we are treated to his insights on New York as dictated into a recorder. They are mostly clichés, and it seems as though Behan is just rushing through them so he can get on with his next binge-drinking session. "New York is the greatest show on earth," he concludes in an early section, before giving himself the rest of the morning off.
For his part, Adrian Dunbar plays this role remarkably well, capturing the visible and audible pain of a man at death's doorstep. Pauline Hutton also excels as Behan's long-suffering wife, Beatrice, who matches wits with Behan in a way only old Irish married couples can. Their scenes together are the rare exceptions to a mostly soporific experience.
Designer Stuart Marshall has the look and feel of the Chelsea Hotel as mythologized in the collective unconscious, from the dusty linens to the well-worn upholstery. James McFetridge's dim natural lighting through dirty windows solidifies the mood of this storied artists' refuge. Unfortunately, it also has the effect of keeping most of the play lit as brightly as a shadowy dive bar, which coupled with Dunbar's hypnotic readings of Behan's prose could lull even the most seasoned truck driver off to dreamland.