A masterwork of generous naturalism is on stage at Theatre Row through Oct. 6. Brendan at the Chelsea, Janet Behan’s study of her uncle, playwright Brendan Behan, presents a feast for fans of Irish theater, while director and star Adrian Dunbar’s performance will delight lovers of inspired acting – the kind of acting that doesn’t seem like acting at all.
Dunbar and most of his supporting cast have performed this work before, in Ireland, notably at the Lyric Theatre, which doubtless goes towards explaining the ease and polish of their performances. But surely the play has even more resonance in the city where it takes place. In 1963 Behan spent time in New York working fitfully, and steadily drinking himself to death, first at the high-toned Algonquin and then at the more fitting Chelsea Hotel where so many famous and infamous artists have hung their hats. Dunbar looks nothing like Behan but wears the skin of his character so fully and naturally that it’s as if the great playwright is here before us, as if there’s no script behind the words that flow from his lips through bouts of pain and sadness and anger and diabetic coma.
But of course there is a script, and it slides with surprising effortlessness from one kind of verbal action to another: the dissipated playwright’s moments alone, alternately bearing up under and cowering from his illness in his small hotel room; his dwindled relationship with his long-suffering wife Beatrice (the excellent Pauline Hutton), who still loves him in spite of his affairs and other sins; flashbacks of good-natured carousing; passages of Behan’s own writing, as he dictates what will become his book Brendan Behan in New York into a reel-to-reel tape recorder; his semi-affectionate browbeating of the young ballet dancer who has signed on as a temporary caretaker (Samantha Pearl); his bonding with a hotel neighbor, a composer named George (Richard Orr); and more. These supporting players turn in fine performances overall, aside from some inconsistent old New York accents, as they play multiple characters illuminating the later years of Behan’s short life and career.
Also carefully illuminating Behan’s life and times and the place he’s come to are James McFetridge’s ice-slow lighting effects, which artfully delineate the passage of day and night, and Stuart Marshall’s set, which nicely evokes a room at the Chelsea without feeling cramped. (The one period detail that struck me wrong wasn’t an object, but a line. In 1963, before the days of digital clocks, a person asked the time wouldn’t have answered “eleven fifty-seven” but rather “three minutes to twelve.”) Effective, too, is the presence of a character we never meet: the girlfriend who’s had Behan’s baby and keeps telephoning. But it’s Dunbar’s portrayal of Behan himself that makes this not just a good play, with some of the dramatic energy we associate with Behan’s own work, but a remarkable happening. Catch it while it’s here. Through Oct. 6. For tickets call Telecharge at 212-239-6200, or visit the show’s website.