When Nicky Martin told me last winter that the Huntington would be premiering Ronan Noone's Brendan this fall, my first reaction was, "Really? Why?" And now, after seeing the smartly-mounted production currently on view at the Wimberley, I'm still wondering the same thing.
You see, I'd already caught Brendan, in a very credible BU student production last season (under the direction of Justin Waldman, who helmed the current show) - when it impressed me as a likeable, in some ways well-crafted but in other ways ungainly, and decidedly minor, addition to the Noone canon. It still impresses me pretty much the same way: not much of an advance for Noone and not much of a challenge for the Huntington - or its audience. (The fact that the Huntington just wrapped another minor Noone drama, The Atheist, while down the plaza a far tinier company mounted the seven-hour Kentucky Cycle, only throws the theatre's lowered-expectations problem into high relief.)
Of course what Brendan has going for it is that it pleases the audience rather than challenges it. Who can't root for Brendan, the shy-but-lovable Irish boy with a wee drinkin' problem (and who hasn't tipped a few too many, Paddy?) and a wee bit of girl trouble too (and who hasn't paid for it, Seamus?), who only longs to be a Real American (and what refugee wouldn't want that, Mr. Cheney?). Well, I suppose I can root for him if I have to, but really, it would be easier if Noone actually followed through on the deeper questions his shy young slip of a play raises. The playwright maintains a smart, satiric tone in half his script - the half which follows Brendan as he romances the girl downstairs while learning to drive (his teacher is his only real friend, the "working girl" he lost his virginity to) in an effort to both hang onto his job and his bid for citizenship. At his finish, Noone goes all sappy on the Land of the (Formerly) Free, but till then his take on what it means to be an American (i.e., a girlfriend and a car) is bracingly clear-eyed. And if we can practically write the ensuing plot for ourselves (it's only a matter of time before the working-girl and the girl-next-door cross paths), its predictability is largely offset by dialogue so taut you could practically bounce a quarter off it.
Alas, it's in the "other half" of Brendan that Noone (at right) falters: his hero's mother has just died - with the withholding of said news operating as her final, strange revenge on him; not to worry, though - like some Gaelic castmember of thartysomething, Ma's ghost pops up on stage, and in her son's subconscious, to henpeck him into achieving his goals. So far, so cute, I suppose - only Noone clearly doesn't know what to do with Ma once he's conjured her, so local star Nancy E. Carroll is left pitching wry punch lines and little else (even though there's dark talk of a past suicide attempt). I suppose half a play is better than noone, so to speak - but isn't this kind of problem precisely what "development" is for? You'd think if the Huntington were going to stage a new script (and stage quite sharply, in a shiny simulacrum of the Hancock Tower by Alexander Dodge), they'd make sure it was finished first. Still, the lack of closure doesn't slow down the cast, with Dashiell Eaves and Kelly McAndrew leading the pack as the sensitive Brendan and his hearty, pay-for-play paramour. Noone, of course, must sense his good fortune to be blessed with not one, but two, Huntington productions in a single season - indeed, I too can only chalk it up to the luck of the Irish.