The immigrant experience in the United States is as varied as each individual who leaves family, friends and a familiar culture to forge a new life in a strange land. Yet not everything is left behind.
In the West Coast premiere of "Brendan," a potentially effective but problematic production at Theatre Banshee in Burbank, one young contemporary Irish immigrant in New York still carries baggage containing grief, guilt, isolation — and a recent addition: the ghost of his dead mother.
On the black box Banshee stage, courtesy of set designer Arthur MacBride, shelves stacked with boxes, presumably filled with immigrant case files, are flanked on either side by low-slung lamps and folding chairs where cast members sit when not appearing in the play's nearly three dozen short scenes. Costume designer Michéle Young's character-identifying wardrobe pieces — jackets, shirts, coats, shawls — hang on hooks. Shoes and props lie under chairs and on stacks of boxes.
As individually titled scenes shift in time and from place to place — New York streets, apartments, cars, a place of work, a bar, jail cell, courthouse, car lot, a prostitute's room — this inward-looking exploration by Irish playwright Ronan Noone revolves around Brendan (Patrick Quinlan), forced by heartbreak, despair and a loving but domineering mother to make a fresh start in New York. Five years in, haunted by his past, barely assimilated and drinking too much, Brendan learns in scene one, "Mammy's Gone," that his mother has died.
(A nice touch here from director McKerrin Kelly to underscore Brendan's isolation and confusion: Cast members become pedestrians on a busy street, brushing past the Irishman as if he isn't there, lamps set swinging to enhance the impression of a life in turmoil.)
The severing of that complex matriarchal cord sends Brendan reeling, as does the appearance of his mother's nagging spirit (stalwart Kathleen M. Darcy hitting just the right notes of bullying affection and exasperation).
Brendan's insecurity as an outsider extends to the language. Although he speaks English, he doesn't speak "American." Petrol is gas, things aren't "grand, they're awesome," and his polite "will you accompany me" sets him apart as odd. Indeed, Brendan confides to the audience, he quit waiting tables and started painting houses when he no longer wanted to earn big tips from "the Yanks" by entertaining them with his accent and feeling like a clown.
Soon, it's sink-or-swim time. Brendan's citizenship ceremony is coming, even as his locked-down emotions threaten a violent eruption. Either he finally moves beyond his past and the ties that bind and choke or he remains forever an outsider wherever he is.
Helping to make the choice go one way or the other are the remaining four cast members, three of whom play multiple, mostly surface-skimming roles.
Catia Ojeda nicely alternates between Daisy — a young Irishwoman whose irresponsible boyfriend Steveo (Amir Abdullah), also from Ireland, drives carless Brendan to work — and Maria, an American prostitute with a heart of gold who takes Brendan's virginity, becomes his friend and teaches him to drive.
In addition to fast-driving, hip-hop loving Steveo — "you're nothing in America without a car," he tells Brendan — Abdullah plays house painter Brendan's breezy boss Fred, as well as police officer Victor and a drunken military veteran.
Eamon Sheehan, who has the thankless role of surly Irish bartender Declan, also appears briefly as a fast-talking American car dealer, trading on his third-generation Irish roots to make the sale.
Rounding out the cast: Devereau Chumrau as Rose, Brendan's attractive downstairs neighbor and his potential love interest. They meet when Brendan disturbs her sleep by cranking up the volume to the Anvil Chorus from Verdi's Il Trovatore — and accompanying it on his harmonica.
Throughout, the spirit of Brendan's mother drives home his failures and inadequacies in at times mildly comic ways (she accompanies him, disapproval at full throttle, on what will be his last sexual visit to Maria). Yet, if this maternal spirit of caution and disapprobation is in actuality Brendan's own voice, it may also be guiding him toward a place of love and belonging.
Unfortunately, Quinlan's one-note performance gives little hint of any blossoming to come. Quinlan's Brendan is so hapless and angst-ridden that he appears downright pathological. A jarring lack of chemistry with the rest of the cast makes it scarcely credible that attractive Maria, Daisy and Rose would be attracted to such a misfit, much less stick around once the extent of this hangdog behavior and seemingly terminal lack of confidence becomes apparent.
As a consequence, the potential to reflect through one man's experience the universal challenges of isolation and assimilation faced by so many immigrants collapses into a narrow and shallow focus.
Where: Theatre Banshee, 3435 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank.
When: Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. Ends Aug. 18.
More info: (818) 846-5323, http://www.theatrebanshee.org
--LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about theater and culture for Marquee.