It is refreshing to see an Irish play that isn’t like all the other Irish plays.
Which is to say – with all due respect to those plays that we love, and that the Irish Classical thankfully presents – one that doesn’t revolve around the countryside, or a kitchen packed full of children and porridge, or a dance being held in the village center.
“Being Behan” is a welcome change of pace. Brothers Jim and Peter Sheridan co-wrote the three-actor play, and Peter directs here at Irish Classical. (Jim is the six-time Academy Award-nominated director of “My Left Foot,” “In the Name of the Father” and “In America.”)
The Sheridans and the O’Neills – Irish Classical Theatre leader Vincent, and his late brother, Chris – have a history together, on both sides of the pond. Their intertwined stories of collaboration and compatriotism are well-documented in program notes, and feel just as apparent on stage.
The play’s subject adds to this camaraderie. Brendan Behan was a real-life Irish Republican revolutionary, and later poet, novelist and playwright. He was a man of, and for, his country. So devout to his bloodline, he planned to bomb the Liverpool docks in protest, at age 16. He was arrested for possession of explosives and sent to a youth detention facility for three years. Behan’s political activism had only just begun, though. His later attempted murder of two detectives sent him away for 14 more years. Activism and association with the IRA subsided, but Behan’s nationalism surely didn’t.
O’Neill plays Older Behan, while Joe Liolos plays Younger Behan. Their complements are nicely mingled. Liolos plays the boyish, outspoken young renegade with determination and resolve, while O’Neill plays the tired, drunk, assumedly wiser poet with reflection and self-doubt. They speak to each other, whispering and hinting at each other’s perception of real time, which plunges us into this man’s psyche.
Liolos is a small guy, but his presence fills the room, especially when he must bring physicality to the play’s steady flow of humor. O’Neill is his dependable storyteller self, but shines in chances to throw on a robe and play a priest, for instance. Much of the play moves as fluidly as that, with cleverly choreographed costume changes, and voices changing midbreath. Adriano Gatto plays a slew of accessory characters with an impressive range of gag humor and sincere pathos. Together, the three actors share their space nicely.
This is especially apparent in the second act, when pacing and action pick up the pace from a much slower, occasionally boring first act. The first half is spent mostly in Behan’s detention, where he befriends a cell mate and adds to his brotherhood.
The second act, though, is where we see Behan out of his element. After making some headway as a writer and playwright, Behan travels to New York City where his professional life stumbles on and off television sets – Gatto as Jack Paar is especially fun – and into bars. His new surroundings give us new vantage points to the man inside, much the same way his inside-out internal dialogues show us unexpected angles. The Sheridans are smart to remove this man from his own grip as often, and in as many ways, as he does. This man-of-state is, himself, a man in many states. We can’t be sure, any more than he can’t, from time to time, which allegiance is more honorable, more worthy.
It’s guilt at its Irish best. Which makes this as inherent-to-form as any typically staged Irish play, to say nothing of its contribution to the perpetual church-and-state dialogue in the Irish narrative. But with both Sheridans’ vision of a contemporary man trapped in an age-old battle, in modern-day context of language and sensibility, no less, we see new valleys in this pasture.
It is a treat to witness this production, another full-circle collaboration that celebrates the connectedness between two sets of two brothers, and two countries, that are joined, every few years or so, on the stage. What a view.