Brendan Behan and the New York struggles that made and broke him


It breaks your heart to witness his helplessness in the play, because you can also see that New York could have been the making of him. New York offered him the kind of freedoms he could never have imagined in the joyless theocratic gulag he'd left behind. Love, every kind of love, became a real possibility.

Behan also had a chance to escape his own persona as a witty drunk in Dublin, replacing it with a new identity as a no-nonsense, tough as nails New Yorker, a thing that was tantalizingly within his grasp.

“He liked that New Yorkers put things on the line. There was no subterfuge. He really responded to that,” says Dunbar.

Janet Behan's script has emerged from a question she'd been asked for decades -- was your uncle a genius or just a drunk?

Answering that question has become Brendan at the Chelsea.

“What was wonderful was that Janet, being a Behan, is immersed in that family’s history and she comes from a place of real authority,” says Dunbar.

 “We've had a great run in London and Belfast, where the play was really well received and now we hope to build on that momentum here in New York.”

All the unruly genius of Behan's signature plays are recalled in the new production, which early on recreates the anarchic hilarity that was his trademark. But Dunbar and Janet Behan are after a richer, more complex appraisal, and they spare nothing in the quest.

Behan himself always understood the danger he was facing, but his genius found a million ways to rationalize it, most often by appealing to his past.

Growing up he'd been so poor that having enough money to eat was regarded as an achievement. To get drunk was a victory, he joked.

Brendan at the Chelsea plays at the Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street, from September 4 to October 6. For tickets call 212-239-6200, or visit