Noone's 'Brendan' is at home in Boston
Fluid, funny, and heartfelt, "Brendan" is Ronan Noone's most expertly crafted play yet. And that's saying something.
Born in Ireland and now a US citizen, the playwright first made his mark in Boston with his "Baile" trilogy, three plays set in, and steeped in, contemporary Irish village life. Now, like their author, the plays have moved to America: "Brendan" follows "The Atheist" in what Noone is calling his American trilogy - which is, appropriately, faster paced, less drenched in ancient woe, but no less intelligent and sharply observed than its Irish predecessor.
"Brendan," making its world premiere at the Boston Center for the Arts, also follows "The Atheist" in the Huntington Theatre Company's season, and seeing them in quick succession emphasizes their differences. Where "The Atheist" was a furiously swift and vitriolically witty one-man rant, "Brendan" places its central character in the midst of complicated relationships: with fellow Irish immigrants in Boston, with the American women he pursues with touching awkwardness, and most of all with his mother back home.
Brendan's relationship with Mammy is particularly complex, not least because she's dead. As the lights go up, we hear a letter from Brendan's sister, Ashling, that breaks the news with fearsome plainness: "Mammy died last week and we buried her three days ago. She wouldn't let me tell you until after she was buried and that was her way. You know yourself."
The first of those lines will become a kind of mournful chorus throughout the intermissionless play, interrupting and overshadowing the new world in which Brendan is trying to make himself at home. As Brendan listens to classical music in his apartment, drinks a Bud at the local bar, tentatively woos a shy downstairs neighbor, and learns to drive, the woman who reads these opening lines stays right with him, invisible to everyone but him and us.
She's identified only as "Woman," but there's no mistaking the maternal irritation and concern in her voice as she tells her son to comb his hair, exhorts him to find a nice girl and settle down, or comments on his choice of friends and employment with wonderfully understated sarcasm. There's love between these two, clearly, but also a lot of old pain - and all of it, in a way that feels irreducibly Irish, is expressed sideways, through wry jokes and dry understatement. Their ongoing conversation is lyrical, but in a crisply distilled and absolutely unpretentious way.
It's also very funny, even when it's breaking your heart. And the play finds ways to be about one particular guy, Brendan, while also saying some interesting things about the United States, Ireland, and what it means to change your allegiance - or at least your passport - from one to the other. Brendan has the outsider's acute awareness of what's odd or different about his new country, but he remains just as acutely aware of his own oddity, his difference, as someone who's not from here.
The Huntington has given "Brendan," which Noone developed as a playwriting fellow with the company, a stylish and substantial production. Alexander Dodge's set begins by capturing a specific, and quintessential, Boston sight: It's the mirrored walls of the Hancock Tower, reflecting the older architecture around it. Then it gets even better, with sections sliding out or swiveling open to represent an apartment, a pub, or a courtroom, as Brendan moves haltingly along the path to citizenship.
As Brendan, Dashiell Eaves is a bit opaque, a little blank - but that comes to feel right, especially as he opens up, slowly, by the end. Brendan should be a little blank: He's not quite sure who he is now, so how can we be, either? But his opacity sometimes keeps us from connecting with him quite as much as we'd like.
Nancy E. Carroll has no such difficulty as the Woman. Like Brendan, we find her charming, exasperating, amusing, controlling; she may be invisible to the rest of the world, but we can't take our eyes off her. If this is an "American" play, and it is, one of the things that make it deeply American is its simultaneous connection to and detachment from the world left behind. And Carroll, with her mischievous glint and dry lilt, manages to evoke Brendan's lost homeland in the largest way, even as she's focusing on the small details of character to create one specific woman from that land.
Mother and son are surrounded by a capable cast, with Ciaran Crawford particularly vivid as the foul-mouthed joker Steveo, and Natalie Gold bringing a nice mix of timidity and strength to Brendan's attractive neighbor, Rose. But what matters here, what we'll remember, is the way Brendan talks to his mother, and the way she talks to him - and the way, inevitably, Noone brings them to a point where they can accept the gulf that now lies between them.
Brendan may never see his mother, or his motherland, again. But so deftly does Noone trace his journey that we, with Brendan, come to understand: Nothing loved is ever wholly lost.