brendan at the chelsea
project arts centre, dublin
Janet Behan's dramatisation of her uncle Brendan's failing years in New York might not add any fresh biographical touches to the familiar portrait, but neither does it flatter or lionise him.
Behan (director Adrian Dunbar), gone AWOL from wife Beatrice (Pauline Hutton), is holed up in the Chelsea Hotel, struggling to keep at least one arm on the wagon while, debilitated by diabetes, he dictates his book about New York into a tape-recorder. Lianne (Samantha Pearl), a struggling ballet dancer, has been assigned to look after him, to keep him on the pills and off the booze, while George (Richard Orr), a commercial writer, is on tap with philosophy and sympathy.
Adrian Dunbar's Lyric Theatre Belfast production takes its time without running into the sand. It's in no more of a hurry than Behan is to deliver the tapes to a desperate publisher, but through flashback, dream, fantasy, and Behan's bursts of reminiscence we get an understanding of how the raconteur arrived at his present pass.
The flashbacks are confined to the first act, where we see Brendan drunkenly invading the Broadway production of The Hostage, dancing the Madison with a couple of homosexual fans on Fire Island, and dealing with the hacks who lapped up his every riotous move. Dunbar's Behan is a wily charmer, an amiable wit who constantly deflates himself while keeping just enough air in the living legend to keep public and publishers on side. We see something of the less attractive man in his treatment of Beatrice, though this is presented as more of a clash of temperaments than innate nastiness in Behan.
After the interval matters turn more serious with Behan off the wagon with an almighty crash, and, with impeccable timing, the arrival of Beatrice from Dublin to find her estranged husband in a compromising position with Lianne. If the rest of the play wasn't as entertaining as it was, the showdown between Behan and his wife would easily redeem the whole production. Hungover, but driven out of hiding by an equally tired woman demanding he tell her the truth, Behan fights for his freedom from the wife he regards as a masochist, while she refuses, in the name of love, to let him go.
It's a terrifically fiery performance from Hutton, and there are some less blazing but subtle performances from Orr as George in the grey area between friend and panderer, while Pearl is excellent as the tough-talking young Lianne, wary but reluctantly succumbing to Behan's charm.