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Irish Writer's Hotel Chelsea Glory Days Remembered in New Play

By Mathew Katz | September 13, 2013 7:29am
  "Brendan at the Chelsea" looks at playwright Brendan Behan's time living at the hotel in the 1960s.
'Brendan at the Chelsea'
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HELL'S KITCHEN — The rollicking glory days of the Hotel Chelsea are now just the stuff of nostalgia — but for a few weeks this September, they're being brought back to life on Theatre Row.

"Brendan at the Chelsea," a new play running at the Acorn Theater, 410 W. 42nd St., depicts the tumultuous last weeks of controversial Irish playwright Brendan Behan, who lived at the historic hotel in the 1960s, shortly before his death in 1964.

The rebellious writer spent much of his time battling dual addictions to drinking and sex — he once called himself a "drinker with a writing problem" — but embodied the Chelsea's swinging '60s spirit.

"This play, it's a great way of exploring Brendan and his legacy and personality and re-appraising it," said Adrian Dunbar, who's directing the play and stars as Behan.

"But it also will remind New Yorkers of a great venue," Dunbar continued, "a great place to meet people, one that's been immortalized by some of the greatest writers who have ever lived."

The play, which opened last week and was written by Behan's niece Janet, was originally staged in London and was also performed in Belfast. The monthlong run in New York will kick off a tour that includes the Irish cities of Dublin, Belfast and Derry.

In addition to portraying Behan, the play comes alive with references to some of the other luminaries that lived at the Chelsea while he did — including Arthur Miller and "Tubby the Tuba" composer George Kleinsinger.

The real-life Hotel Chelsea has not had guests for more than two years, since it was purchased by Joseph Chetrit in 2011 — and sold again to hotelier King & Grove in August.

A few dozen permanent tenants remain as the Chelsea is slowly being renovated into a luxury hotel. A memorial plaque dedicated to Behan still hangs on the building.

Dunbar spent a few nights at the Chelsea just before it was closed to guests to research the role. The play is largely set in Behan's room there, overlooking the city. 

"I got the tail end of it — when everyone was chasing down that nostalgic, bohemian flavor of the place," Dunbar said. "It's where Brendan saw the city."

"Brendan at the Chelsea" runs until Oct. 6. Tickets are available online.