The Irish playwright Brendan Behan, known for his plays The Hostage and The Quare Fellow and for his memoir Borstal Boy, was a raucous, charismatic, hard-drinking Irish Republican who began to write after he got out of prison for shooting at English detectives during a public event. Even in photos, his massive personality, which seems perfectly matched to an outsize frame, pops out at you.
But Danny Venezia, who plays him in the unfortunate one-man show A Broth of a Boy, currently in the black box at the Arsenal Arts Center in Watertown, is a compact fellow who wanders about the stage, usually with one hand glued to a bottle or a glass and the other stuck in his pocket or fixed to his side like a magnet. Venezia (who received good notices for a UK tour of the show) looks uncomfortable — a little less so when he bursts into one of the (far too many) Irish ballads that pepper his four monologues, but his voice is mediocre at best and he sings every tune exactly the same way. He has zero charisma and he gives the sad impression of knowing how miscast he is. Richard Smithies, who directed his own script, hasn't given him any help. The script is made up mostly of stories, but Venezia's rhythms are so odd — he takes pauses you could drive a train through — that they're impossible to follow.
A Broth of a Boy is professional only in the sense that it's being performed in a professional theatrical space. We're supposed to believe that Behan is talking to various unseen companions, a reporter, a bartender, and his wife, but Venezia's focus is inconsistent and he keeps forgetting to listen to the unheard lines he's supposed to be responding to. The four scenes are meant to take place in different pubs (three in Dublin, one in Paris), but except for the addition or removal of a tablecloth and a chair or two they all look exactly the same. I don't mind the idea of a minimalist set, but it's remarkably tacky. And why didn't it occur to Smithies, who apparently arranged it (no set designer is listed in the program), to at least reposition the bar and the table from one scene to the next? Even at that the scene shifts are clumsy and long, and on press night the handful of music cues were screwed up. It's a short evening (90 minutes, including intermission), but an embarrassing one.
A BROTH OF A BOY:: Through October 7 :: Arsenal Center for the Arts Black Box Theater, 321 Arsenal St, Watertown :: $25 :: 671.923.8487 or arsenalarts.org
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