The life and times of Brendan Behan, one of Ireland’s most colorful writers, are in the spotlight this month in “A Broth of a Boy.” The one-man show, starring Danny Venezia, is being presented from Sept. 25 to Oct. 7 at The Arsenal Center for the Arts in Waltham.
Aside from being a gifted poet, novelist and playwright, Behan is renowned for having joined the IRA. at the age of 16. His play “Borstal Boy” tells the autobiographical story of his time in a youth prison in England following his mission to blow up the Liverpool docks.
Based on Behan’s writings, “A Broth of a Boy” highlights four critical points in Behan’s spirited career. Each of the play’s four sections takes place in a different bar. As Behan was known for his huge repertoire of Irish songs, music is interspersed throughout the show -- from traditional Celtic ballads like “Roisin Dubh” to the music hall rowdiness of “Take Her Up To Monto.”
The play was enthusiastically received at the prestigious Edinburgh Festival, at the Irish Arts Center in London, and in New York at both the Irish American Historical Society and Donnell Library, where it kicked off Irish Heritage Week. A short run was staged in Boston in 2003.
So what’s a nice Italian boy from Charlestown doing portraying an Irish icon? Those were the exact sentiments of Brian Behan, Brendan’s brother, after he saw the show in London. Danny said, laughing, “He said I had a [expletive deleted] nerve playing his brother with an Italian name.” Danny actually has equally strong Irish and Italian roots. “My grandfather, Robert Connelly, was always so proud of his Irish heritage,” he said. “When I started researching this role and visited Ireland, I realized why he felt the way he did.”
Danny’s journey with the play can be traced back to his working with the show’s director, Richard Smithies, many years ago in New York. Danny never set out to become an actor, although he had done a few school shows. He was working as chief engineer for a Boston office building when a medical crisis struck his family. His infant nephew, Kyle, was diagnosed with leukemia. The family was thrown into turmoil as they searched for a bone marrow donor. Despite their best efforts, the boy died shortly before his second birthday.
“It was a devastating year,” Danny said. “Everybody just went numb.” A young woman in his office building knew he was floundering and told him he needed to change his life 180 degrees and do something he never thought he’d ever do. He’d been an amateur boxer, so when he heard a movie about boxing was being filmed on Cape Cod, it caught his interest.
“It was called ‘The Mouse,’” he said. “It was an independent with John Savage and Burt Young. . . It was based on a true story about a boxer, and I said, ‘Well I should be able to do that.’ So I went in and I got a small role in it.”
Things clicked. Such that he moved to New York City and enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. To make ends meet, he took a job working as a doorman for Giorgio Armani. By sheer coincidence, The New York Times was doing a story about doormen in Manhattan and took notice of him. Danny said, “So I’m in New York a couple of weeks and I’m in The New York Times.”
Later, while working as a bartender at a downtown restaurant, he met the wife of the Artistic Director at Chained Lightning Theater. An audition followed, leading to a role in William Saroyan’s “The Time Of Your Life.” It was also at Chained Lightning that he first took voice lessons with Smithies, who, even then, saw potential in the young actor. When Smithies later bought a theater in the Berkshires, Danny did a few seasons of summer stock for him.
In 2001, Smithies came to him with the script for “A Broth of a Boy.” Danny said, “When he originally gave it to me it was about two and a half hours long. I said, ‘You gotta be out of your mind’ . . . And he said, ‘You can do this.’ “ The two worked on the script, eventually whittling the running time down to an hour and a half. Then Smithies suggested they visit Dublin so Danny could grasp the language and walk in Behan’s footsteps. “It was one of the greatest experiences of my life,” he said. “When we were coming back, [Richard] said, ‘What did you learn?’ And I said, ‘With the Guinness, it goes in black and it comes out black.’ And he said, ‘Well thank you. With all that money, I could have told you that.’ “
His travels from Dingle Bay and Connemara through Dublin and Galway ultimately helped him develop a heightened appreciation for his late grandfather’s heritage. “He just bled Irish,” Danny said. “You know who he looked like a lot -- Billy Bulger. He had to go to the boys department to get his shoes, he had such small feet. I remember at Christmas time, at parties, he’d be drinking whiskey in a Coke size glass. You’d think, ‘Where is he putting that?’”
“When we did the four shows in Boston, he came to every one. . . I called him my biggest groupie,” Danny said. “At that point he had had a couple of strokes, so he had the walker with the half tennis balls on the bottom. He came in early, so he wouldn’t disturb anybody, with my mother and father. He always had a tear in his eye after the show.”
As a result of devoting so much time to this play, Danny says his connection to the spirit of Brendan Behan continues to deepen. “This guy who grew up in the slums of Ireland, who did seven years in prison, grew up as a staunch Republican -- at the end of the day, it’s what made his writing so great. There was no animosity.” In turn, the man was so beloved that when he died in 1964, thousands lined the streets of Dublin as his casket passed.
Of the play’s future, he said, “I’d like to see it go to New York. I’d like to see it go to Ireland . . . Even though we received great reviews [in the past], I was only scratching the surface . . . At the end of the day, I want as many people as possible to see it . . . I want to move them, make them laugh, and sing, and come away with an appreciation of Brendan Behan and the Irish -- like I’ve had since starting this project.”
R. J. Donovan is publisher of OnStageBoston.com.