|Adrian Dunbar as Brendan Behan|
Brendan at the Chelsea, a new play about the brilliant but self-destructive Irish genius Brendan Behan (written by his niece Janet Behan) will make its New York debut next month fresh from its successful run at the new Lyric Theatre in Belfast.
The production tells the story of Behan’s short but eventful residency at New York's legendary Hotel Chelsea in 1963. Then as now New York was a town that indulged and celebrated rebels, and Behan quickly found himself face to face with the temptations and hard questions he had tried to outrun at home in Ireland.
His alcoholism, his sex addiction and his rumored bisexuality all played their parts in his life and art and New York City brought them into clear focus, providing him with opportunities for exploration and self-discovery that were almost non-existent to him at home.
Like Oscar Wilde, another profligate Irish genius that he adored, Behan was becoming the spendthrift of his own genius. At times it seemed like he would prefer to do almost anything other than write, and in the play we see him the way those closest to him often did -- dead drunk, flat broke and way past the promised delivery date of his latest book.
At the Chelsea his famous neighbors included Arthur Miller, Bob Dylan and other generation-defining artists. Behan certainly deserved his place among them.
At his best he represented the generosity, humor, compassion and brilliance of the Irish people, and his life and work was a towering rebuke to the insular theocratic republic he despised.
But he was decades ahead of his time. Like Wilde, we had to learn to become his contemporaries.
Deciding to make a virtue of a necessity, during his Chelsea stay Behan had proposed and was engaged to write a travelogue he titled Brendan Behan’s New York. The new play makes note of the fact but is set entirely within his hotel suite. As his play conquers Broadway his personal life is coming apart.
It’s hard to watch someone so prodigiously gifted turn his eloquence and dramatic flare into blistering attacks on the people who love him best, but this production, directed by and starring the gifted Adrian Dunbar (best known for My Left Foot and The Crying Game) aims to rescue Behan from the sometimes reductive theatrical portraits we have seen before.
Alcoholism is still a taboo subject in Ireland, and so truthful assessments of the wrenching tragedy that was Behan’s final act have often focused on what was lost to art more than the damage that he did to himself and his loved ones.
Brendan at the Chelsea doesn’t flinch in the face of his dissolution, however. It was needless, it was cruel, and it ended disastrously, the way so many helpless addicts lives do.
Behan wanted to live a life that mattered, so much so that his appetite for achievement could completely overwhelm him. He didn’t want to be an ordinary man, making ordinary observations and living an ordinary life. As he said himself, with characteristic whimsy, he did everything in his power to resist becoming “just an ordinary human Behan.”
But it must have taken a lot of courage to come from his humble Dublin childhood and find himself celebrated on the world’s stage. It didn’t usually happen to writers from his background, so there was no road map, no one knew how to handle him, and he was the rarest of rare birds.
Behan had grown up in a militantly Republican house steeped in the myths, poems, literature and ballads of old Ireland, and that must have given him his first introduction to the power of the written word.
Janet Behan is to be thanked for writing this immensely thoughtful and subtle play. Dunbar is known for tackling tough nut characters, but Behan may be the biggest challenge of his career and his work already has the critics raving.
In Brendan at the Chelsea he reintroduces us to the playwright, poet, novelist and wit whose funeral was the biggest seen in Ireland since the time of Michael Collins. All Dublin loved him, and he lived and died like he didn’t know.
The show will run in a five-week engagement at the Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street, from Wednesday, September 4 through Sunday, October 6. For tickets call 212-239-6200.