A young Irish immigrant adjusts to life in contemporary New York City in Ronan Noone’s Brendan, one of the best—and most entertaining and emotionally resonant—plays I’ve seen this past year, now getting an absolutely superb intimate West Coast Premiere at Theatre Banshee.

CarRide600 Brendan (Patrick Quinlan) has been in the U.S. for five years now, and though he’s just about ready to take his U.S. Citizenship Test, in other ways his adaptation to American life has been a slow one. He’s still carless (doesn’t even know how to drive one), girlfriendless (his only sexual outlet is an occasional visit to a local lady of the evening), and virtually friendless (with only his mate Steveo to keep him company).

Then comes a letter from the old country announcing: “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.”

News of a parent’s death an ocean away would be tough for any immigrant to handle. For Brendan, it is devastating, he and his Mammy having been virtually incommunicado since he left Ireland, the victim of a broken heart.

Deceased or not, Mammy (Kathleen M. Darcy) now plans to make up for lost time, her ghost having decided to haunt Brendan’s every waking moment, offering advice at every turn, whether to criticize her son’s choice of friends and his menial job as a house painter or to tell him to fix his curly blond locks or to offer romantic advice as he attempts in his shy, awkward way to court his American neighbor Rose (Devereau Chumrau).

A ghost seen only by the lead protagonist (and the audience) is probably as old as theater itself, and playwright Noone does occasional go for the tried-and-true laugh, as when Brendan responds annoyedly to one of Mammy’s jibes only to have the person he’s actually with assume that he’s the one being spoken to. (It worked for Topper, and it works here.) Still, what makes this gimmick particularly effective in Brendan is that both playwright and actors have us believing that following news of Mammy’s death, our hero does actually hear his mother’s voice, whether spectral or simply in his imagination.

maria-sm Most of Brendan’s interactions are with the living, though, among the most significant of which are his occasional pay-dates with Maria (Catia Ojeda), whose heart is so proverbially made of gold that she agrees to teach Brendan to drive, realizing perhaps that she may well be the best friend he’s made since emigrating to American shores.

Noone’s play has had a couple of American productions since its 2007 World Premiere at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company, though I can’t imagine any of them having been more imaginatively staged or gorgeously acted than Theatre Banshee’s under the truly inspired direction of McKerrin Kelly.

Citizns-sm Kelly has added an intermission at just the right point, this being a play you want to talk about before heading back in for Act Two. She and scenic designer Arthur MacBride have eschewed the literal sets of its original production for a design which backs a nearly empty black stage with stacks of U.S. government filing boxes, the significance of which will become clear in a powerful final tableau that is entirely Kelly’s inspiration—and a brilliant one at that.

I love the very theatricality of Noone’s and Kelly’s collective visions. The playwright has divided Brendan into about three dozen scenes, their titles announced by one cast member or another. (“Scene 4, Daisy Is Upset” “Scene 10, Apology With Chocolates”). Kelly has somehow also managed to trim Brendan’s original cast of nine down to six (one less than Roone himself had imagined possible), and all are onstage throughout. Quinlan, Darcy, and Chumreau each play a single character, while Amir Abdullah, Ojeda, and Eamon Sheehan get the plum assignment of bringing to life as many as half a dozen roles each, distinctively and indelibly, aided by costume designer Michèle Young’s many character-defining outfits hanging on either side of the stage for quick changes. Cast members provide special effects as well, manipulating hanging lights to simulate car headlights, holding the corner of a doorframe to denote an apartment doorway, or even in one instance, serving as both stove and whistling tea kettle sound effect.

As Brendan, Quinlan (who played Irish in last summer’s The Irish Curse) now gets the star vehicle he richly deserves. Not only does he look the part, Quinlan acts the role with depth, humor, pathos, and an irresistible charm. It helps that the playwright gives Brendan gems of lines, as in a monolog in which he describes how he’s Americanized his vocabulary (“awesome” having taken the place of “grand”) or, when thanking Rose for the pair of opera tickets she’s given him, his face lights up with the grand (make that awesome) idea that “You could come too!” Still, gems of lines or not, there’d be no Brendan without an actor of Quinlan’s talent and charisma. Make no mistake. You’ll be hearing much more from him in months to come.

Darcy’s Mammy is a delicious presence throughout, whether scowling disapproval, egging her shy son on, or being an invisible but no less annoying backseat driver during her Brendan’s lessons behind the wheel.

Rose-sm Chumreau creates a rich, three-dimensional Rose, the quintessential girl-next-door whose African-American race (not specified in Noone’s script) only serves to enhance Brendan’s cross-cultural journey.

As for Abdullah, Ojeda, and Sheehan, could there be three luckier (or better) L.A. actors than this trio, each of whom shines in one distinct role after another?

A terrific Abdullah gets to play Brendan’s coarse Irish mate Steveo, his African-American boss Fred, Rose’s protective brother Victor, a cop, a driving test examiner with helpful connections, and a bum who’s none too pleased with the immigrant presence in his city.

An equally splendid Sheehan is (among others) Brendan’s Irish coworker Declan, the car salesman who sells Brendan his Ford Focus, and both the punk who attempts to vandalize said Focus and the judge who must decide whether to throw the book at Brendan, arrested for defending his property with his fists.

And then there is the once again dazzling Ojeda, who not only makes Maria the smartest, warmest, most likeable hooker I’ve seen on stage, she shines in cameos as Steveo’s Irish girlfriend Daisy, a nasally court officer, and the immigration judge who must decide Brendan’s fate as a would-be American citizen.

MacBride’s scenic design may well be the most ingenious in town, the cardboard box motif carried over into even benches and bars made of the same material. Bosco Flanagan’s imaginative lighting design is as good as it gets, as is Brendan’s uncredited sound design, which lets us know we’re in the heart of New York City even eyes closed. Andrew Leman gets high marks for the production’s many props as does dialect coach Kacey Camp for the cast’s spot-on accents.

Brendan is produced by Leslie Baldwin and Sean Branney. Jon C. Marooner is assistant director. Philip Tyler is stage manager. Dan Conroy is technical director.

I wish that playwright Noone could make it out from Boston to see Theatre Banshee’s production of his treasure of a play, not only because it represents Los Angeles intimate theater at its very finest, but because director Kelly and her cast and creative team have taken Noone’s marvelous words and brought them to life with consummate inventiveness and flair. Angelinos who have considerably less distance to travel than Noone are urged not to miss this wonderfully rewarding evening of Irish-American theater L.A.-style.

The Banshee, 3435 W. Magnolia, Burbank.

–Steven Stanley
July 27, 2013
Photos: Moses Umbeke

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