Famous mid-20th century playwright, radical Irish Republican and drunken wit Brendan Behan isn’t heard about much these days, even on this side of the pond. “Brendan at the Chelsea,” by the writer’s niece Janet, is a loving but misguided attempt to put Behan back on the radar. Play is most notable for the uncanny ability of producer, co-director and star Adrian Dunbar (“Hear My Song,” “My Left Foot”) to impersonate Behan, and Dunbar’s engaging performance goes some way toward holding together this rickety comedy-drama based on Behan’s brief 1963 stint at New York’s Chelsea Hotel.
All the action takes place in a runway-shaped hotel bedroom, which the audience views side-on (no set designer is credited for the amateurish-looking backdrop of jagged flats). Play begins as Behan’s “The Hostage” is a huge hit on Broadway, and he is trying to stay off the bottle and get a book finished. Pathetically, he has to dictate into a tape recorder because his hands are too shaky to write (Behan died of alcoholism a year after the action takes place).
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Various characters are introduced to justify the exposition and give Behan a foil to crack wise: a young American ballet dancer (the dodgily accented Eva Crompton), hired to look after him; a composer also resident in the hotel (Jonathan Tafler, excellent); and Behan’s wife Beatrice (Brid Brennan, under-challenged), who arrives unexpectedly, only to discover that he’s fathered a baby by another woman and wants a divorce.
Janet Behan’s inexperience as a playwright is most evident in the play’s wandering form of address, which slips between monologues justified by Behan’s recordings, more monologues delivered directly to the audience, naturalistic dialogue, flashbacks and dream/fantasy sequences.
What playwright and star do conjure brilliantly is Behan’s voice, as he rhapsodizes about the possibility of self-reinvention in New York and curses the insularity of his auld sod: “Dear old Dublin. Do anything you like, be anything you like, so long as you remember to fail.”
Dunbar, a Northern Irishman, captures the rhythmic swoops of Behan’s working class Dublinese with total conviction. He’s so immersed in his depiction of Behan that his craggy, handsome face somehow seems to transform into Behan’s podgy, potato-like one. His performance and strong stage presence anchor what is otherwise a shambling and diffuse production, which might have been more focused had Dunbar not attempted to juggle both helming and starring roles.
Play often has the educational feel characteristic of bio-plays about little-known figures. Numerous fleeting references are made to real-life events: Behan’s bisexuality, his spectacular fall off the wagon with eight bottles of champagne, and the questioned originality of his career-making play, “The Quare Fellow.” While the initiated will understand these references, the majority of audience members will probably just end up overwhelmed by detail.
The creative team succeeds in piquing interest in Behan’s writing, but one can’t help but wonder if they would have done him a better service by staging one of his neglected plays.