Entertainment » Theatre

Brendan

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Jul 19, 2016
Avery Bargar and Kiki Samko in 'Brendan'
Avery Bargar and Kiki Samko in 'Brendan'  (Source:Josephine Anes)

It's always a pleasure to see Boston's home-grown theater up on the stage, and with its production of Ronan Noone's "Brendan" -- which saw its world premiere in 2007, courtesy of the Huntington Theatre Company -- Happy Medium Theatre chooses wisely and well.

The Irish-born Noone wrote the play after relocating to Boston. "Brendan" is the second in the playwright's "American Trilogy," but you don't have to have seen or know anything about the other two plays in the cycle; "Brendan" is perfectly self-contained, a lyrical and often hilarious look at the immigrant experience.

The lead character, and the one who lends his name to the title, is Brendan (Avery Bargar), a shy fellow who finds work at a pub and a painting company, fraternizes -- barely -- with a fellow immigrant named SteveO (Michael Underhill), and otherwise keeps to himself. Well, that is, with the exception of visits he makes to a prostitute named Maria (Audrey Lynn Sylvia, in full-on bawdy humor).

Even ensconced in his flat, listening to classical music, Brendan isn't much for social discourse. The letters he receives form home -- they average about one per year -- go unanswered; the latest missive is from his sister (Melody Martin), who informs him of their mothers' passing.


Jay Street and Avery Bargar in 'Brendan'  (Source:Josephine Anes)

The news launches a tumultuous week in which Brendan loses his best friend; meets Rose, the girl of his dreams (Anne Moreau); expects to be granted American citizenship; learns to drive a car (under Maria's tutelage); ticks off his boss (Jay Street); and risks everything he's worked so hard for over the last five years in one moment of rage.

The hardest part of this week from hell? The persistent shade of his mother (Kiki Samko), who follows him everywhere -- even to Maria's boudoir -- all while offering her advice and critiques. (The scene at Maria's, when Brendan is trying to "do sex," is easily the most charged with ghastly humor: Both Brendan and the ghost of his mother are mortified, and this single incident illustrates much of what lies uneasily between them.)

The cast is rounded out with Mikey DiLoreto (who plays a judge, among other parts) and Mike Budwey (whose dual roles are a pugnacious bartender and Rose's cop brother, Victor). (The night I saw the play, co-director Victor Shopov subbed for Budwey and you'd never have known he was filling in.) About half the cast play multiple parts, and they do it expertly. The Irish brogues are from around the map of the Emerald Isle, but to my ear that only added another layer of authenticity. (Not everyone has to sound like they sprang out of a mist-shrouded myth about Cuchulain.)

A play that tosses so many disparate elements into the air and then juggles them risks dropping one or more balls -- or else devolving into farce or, at best, putting on a simplistic show of wrapping and weaving various storyline into a nice bow.


Avery Bargar, Kiki Samko, and Michael Underhill  (Source:Josephine Anes)

There's a little of the latter going on here, but none of the former. Text and production alike keep all cylinders firing and all narrative strands electrified.

Anchoring the entire business is Bargar, who knows how to balance the demands of the script -- he's befuddled and comic when he needs to be, but that never takes the depth or nuance out of his performance when he's downcast and anxious.

Samko nails the mother figure square on, both in voice overs that recount the letters she's written over the years and as Ma's ghostly apparition. Moreau's Rose is a sweet character, and she even sells the script's weakest passages -- those when Rose (a sensitive soul marked, literally, by past rejection) flies off the handle upon finding out a little more about Brendan's private life than he might like.

The production is co-directed by Brett Marks and Victor Shopov, and the duo work together so tightly that the production feels fully integrated. Marc Ewart makes the most of the black box space, setting off a nook in the back where Ma's letters can be given voice as Ma -- in the past, as a voice from a far-off homeland -- can sit in a deftly sketched parlor. Other spots around the space come into use as a bar, a house that's being painted, Maria's place, and Brendan's flat. There are a number of scenes set in automobiles, and they are achieved in the simplest -- and probably best -- tradition: By pulling a few chairs together.

That simplicity lends itself well to the play's textual complexities. This is a story of an immigrant fighting his fears to become part of his chosen homeland, but it's also -- and more importantly -- the story of a son making peace as best he can with the family he feels rejected him, but also whom he fears he has let down.


"Brendan" continues through July 30 at the Boston Center for the Arts. For tickets and more information, please go to http://www.bostontheatrescene.com/season/BRENDAN


Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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