Review: An émigré's struggle with his baggage, in AIRE's Brendan

When the pipes aren't calling
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  April 6, 2011

theater_brendan_main
SIMILARLY SCARRED A corny plot device, carried off lovingly.

America, enthuses Irish émigré Brendan (Michael Dix Thomas), is the smell of coffee and gasoline. The shy young man loves America, and specifically his adopted city of Boston, but there are problems: His mother back in Ireland, with whom he's had a fraught relationship, has died. Hearing of her death only after she's been in the ground a week, Brendan must now grieve in a foreign country, virtually friendless, and without the normal social rituals of closure. And so although she's dead and buried, Brendan's mother (Susan Reilly) scarcely leaves her son's side for the duration of Ronan Noone's Brendan. Even while he's paying for "S-E-X," as she calls it, or struggling to ask out his neighbor Rose (April Singley), Mom is right there with him. Brendan's challenge is to let go of her, his birth land, and his past, in this romantic comedy directed by Tony Reilly for the American Irish Repertory Ensemble.

Though there's plenty of "fucking this," "fucking that," and many more grammatical iterations of the word, this is not an show with the dark edge of Lonesome West or The Seafarer, two of AIRE's recent productions. Instead, AIRE shakes up its theatrical ethos to offer a show that's sweeter, slighter, and more earnest. Likewise has the company shaken up its casting interestingly: A slew of fine local actors make their AIRE debuts in Brendan, including its lead.

It's this wonderful cast that makes a somewhat middling script into an endearing, skillfully acted show with characters to care about. Thomas makes the damaged Brendan immensely sympathetic, with his aw-shucks smile, slouchy hoodied shoulders, and shyly averted eyes. As his equally shy love interest, an A&P manager with a blaze of birthmark on her face, Singley brings a gleaming fierceness to Rose's lovely awkwardness, and Brendan and Rose's scenes together flutter with heart-in-throat potential.

A small ensemble supports them as the various Yanks and Irish imports of Brendan's travels (among them, the Phoenix's own Nicholas Schroeder). Particularly subtle and versatile are the marvelous AIRE regular Tara McCannell (I love her as a wry DMV worker in an appliqué sweatshirt), and the most excellent JP Guimont, whom we're lucky to have back from the big city (as a skeptical and laconic Boston sentencing judge, he is pitch-perfect). Also outstanding is Kerry Rasor as Maria, Brendan's prostitute-turned-driving-teacher-turned-friend. Her Maria is radiant and fully inhabited; Rasor makes a stock type — the whore with the heart of gold — into an engagingly round character. And as Brendan's ever-present mother, Susan Reilly is, as always, a pleasure to watch. She gives a rich characterization of the opinionated, no-nonsense woman, though she is perhaps not quite intimidating enough to fully justify the extent of adult insecurity present in Brendan, who'd been so "mollied" by her as a child.

The script gets more psychologically interesting as it threads its several subplots with lines repeated from his mother's letters and as Brendan finds himself repeating them aloud, to other people, in a variety of contexts — that is, as Brendan's internal and external worlds begin to mesh. But playwright Noone errs in bringing in some gratuitous, too-pat symbols and catalysts. For example, it feels ham-handed to give Rose her conspicuous birthmark — to do so is to draw her shyness and self-consciousness by way of a shorthand, rather than her dialogue and gestures — and to later give Brendan a nearly-identical wound as a plot point borders on the laughable.

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