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Getting Your Irish Up on the Stage : In ‘Bein’ With Behan,’ Michael Kavanagh pays glad tribute to a fellow Dubliner

It has taken over 10 years, but Michael L. Kavanagh finally has Brendan Behan exactly where he wants him: on stage.

“He was a great influence on my life,” said Kavanagh, who pays tribute to the late Irish writer in his one-man show, “Bein’ with Behan” (at Van Nuys’ West End Playhouse through Feb. 4). “We also have very similar backgrounds. We both come from the slums of Dublin. I wasn’t in the Irish Republican Army as he was, but I left school at 14 years of age and apprenticed as a house painter--where I worked alongside Brendan’s father, Stephen.”

Emigrating to America in 1964 to study jazz trumpet, Kavanagh spent time in Boston and Las Vegas (often supporting himself as a bartender), before gravitating to acting. In 1976, he came up with the idea for this show.

“At first, the estate and Mrs. Behan were rather cautious about it,” Kavanagh said, alluding to the inevitable inclusion of Behan’s excesses--boozing, brawling, multiple arrests and sexual escapades (he died at 41 in 1964 of alcoholism)--in such a portrait. Finally, after years of slogging through rewrites and negotiations with the estate and Behan publisher Samuel French, Kavanagh was granted full rights for America, Canada and Australia.

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The resulting monologue--originally six hours long, now whittled to just under 2 1/2--is largely supported by Behan’s own words. Kavanagh’s sources include Behan’s biographies (“The Quare Fellow” and “Confessions of an Irish Rebel”), plays (“The Borstal Boy” and “The Hostage”), little-known books (“Brendan Behan’s New York” and “Brendan Behan’s Ireland”), plus stacks of newspaper articles, poems and songs.

When Kavanagh finished the research, “I said, ‘I don’t want to hear another word about Brendan Behan. I’m sick of him!’ ”

But he got over it. Sharing the stage with his trusty typewriter and a glass of Guinness beer (“That was Brendan’s brand; I prefer Budweiser”), Kavanagh slips into character--and into massive memory overload. “Sometimes your mind splits in half,” he said, chuckling. “You’re telling one story, thinking, ‘God, what’s the next anecdote?’ Then you realize it’s not a story at all, but a bloody song that’s coming up. Then suddenly, the sound of that tells me where I have to go to get to the next story.”

In 1988, “Behan” made its debut at the Jimson Theatre in Hollywood (“We lost our shirts, but it was OK ‘cause we got wonderful reviews”). Kavanagh is now hoping that good press will help support runs in New York, Chicago and maybe a college tour. The material, he says, is both entertaining and timely. “Brendan once said, ‘Ireland, I’m afraid, will never be at peace.’ And so while it makes my heart heavy to see in the papers what’s going on in Ireland, it also makes this show very relevant.”

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Although he admits to a fondness for “working-class” writers like Behan and Sean O’Casey (dismissing Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and W.B. Yeats as “bluebloods”), Kavanagh, 49, feels he’s presented a balanced account. “What strikes me most about Brendan was his great love for humanity, his kindness,” he said earnestly. “And he was very honest. In this play, he doesn’t spare the British, he doesn’t spare the IRA, and he doesn’t spare himself.

“Something would happen when he’d have one drink too many. Suddenly he’d turn from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde, get rather aggressive and argumentative. Of course, I show that inevitable decline at the end. But what you may have never seen before is the private, sensitive, vulnerable Brendan Behan, totally removed from the popular image of the loudmouthed, rip-roaring, two-fisted, hard-drinking Irish playwright-drunk brawler.”

As an actor, Kavanagh--with his pink skin, twinkling eyes and deep brogue--knows only too well the limitations of cultural typecasting.

“Being Irish in this business works for you some of the time,” he said slowly. “Sometimes it works against you. With all due respect to Barry Fitzgerald, I think that all Irish actors have to fight the image.” He mimicked Fitzgerald’s sing-song movie-priest delivery in “Going My Way.” “Barry Fitzgerald himself didn’t talk like that. It’s Hollywood’s concept of what an Irishman was. And it’s not right.”

He shook his head quizzically. “The funny thing is, when I go home to Dublin and drink in pubs where the people don’t necessarily know me, they think I’m a Yank.”

“Bein’ With Behan” plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through Feb. 4 at the West End Playhouse, 7446 Van Nuys Blvd., Van Nuys. (818) 904-0444. Tickets are $15.


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