Theater Review: “Brendan” — Ghost Mom to the Rescue

Bill Marx Brazenly predictable, fearlessly anachronistic, Ronan Noone’s Brendan, which is receiving its world premiere production from the Huntington Theatre Company, is the kind of inspirational tearjerker comedy that is pleasant enough to sit through but damned depressing to think about.

Like many contemporary playwrights who sense the emotional needs of a graying theater demographic, Noone mixes TV sit-com chuckles with old-fashioned Hallmark card sentiment. An air of antique uplift hangs over this comic take on immigrant angst. But why bother to deal with contemporary tensions and complexities when tugging heartstrings and plugging melting pot reassurances will do? Critics fall for the old hooey: Louise Kennedy of the Boston Globe sniffles that the script proves that “Nothing loved is ever wholly lost.” For me, Brendan suggests that no theatrical cliché, including ye olde whore with a heart of gold, ever goes away.

Still, Noone has fashioned an efficient entertainment about the virtues of middle-class niceness. Working in Boston as a house painter, Brendan is a sensitive but bedeviled Irish immigrant. He loves classical music, is emotionally ambivalent about his just deceased iron-willed mother, and has trouble meeting and romancing women. Interestingly, the behavioral traits that Brendan’s strict mom disapproves of – aggressive sexuality, hard-drinking, bad language — are foisted by Noone onto Brendan’s friend, who assists Brendan on his way to success in America but doesn’t reap the same enriching rewards. Apparently, woe to the immigrant who isn’t sufficiently well behaved.

Thankfully, the tough love proffered by Brendan’s poltergeist mom and a large-souled prostitute help the guy grapple with his inner demons. During the course of the 90-minute production (to his credit, Noone dispenses the dramedy with dispatch), Brendan works to earn American citizenship and to win a suitably nice girl friend, who, of course, has issues of intolerance to overcome. Along the way the playwright tosses in more than his share of logic-begging coincidences and heart-warming contrivances: Boston turns out to be about as cozy as an Irish village.

The Huntington Theatre Company’s production, smoothly directed by Justin Waldman, is energized by charming performances from the dependable Nancy E. Carroll as the cranky but loving Irish ghost-mom and Dashiell Eaves as her traumatized son, a shy loner who is trying to make it on his own after a romantic debacle causes him to leave the Old Sod. But aside from the considerable comic skills of the leads (the supporting cast members careen into cartoonishness at times) and Alexander Dodge’s impressively modular set, Brendan comes off as a genially amusing but slickly sweet fable about assimilation and mother-fixation.

The Huntington Theatre Company production of Brendan runs through November 17 at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts.

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