By Joseph Hurley
THE HOSTAGE, by Brendan Behan. Directed by Charlotte Moore. Featuring Derdriu Ring, Erik Singer, Terry Donnelly and Anto Nolan. At the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street. Through Dec. 10.
Orderliness was never one of the virtues of Brendan Behan’s roistering, rollicking ragbag of a play, "The Hostage," first seen locally in a 1960 Broadway production, and now being given a brazenly joyous new staging by the fearless Irish Repertory Theatre.
More than anything even remotely resembling a "well-made" play, "The Hostage," like its abundantly gifted author, who died far too young, at age 41 in 1964, calls to mind a flamboyantly rumpled, permanently unmade bed, but a capacious and devilishly inviting one nevertheless.
Charlotte Moore’s refreshingly raucous production, cramming an ebullient rabble of 16 performers onto the group’s small playing area, threatens again and again to fly apart at the seams but never quite does so. It is a hopeful creature of great heart and buoyant spirits, and it would appear to be quite impossible for even the most soulless spectator to walk away from the show unmoved and unsatisfied.
Behan was often accused of lifting the plot of "The Hostage" from Frank O’Connor’s great short story "Guests of the Nation," and the charge may well have merit, in which case his play could be viewed as a surprisingly faithful musical burlesque based on a rich, rewarding and uncredited original source.
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Behan, according to legend, spent the £75 commission he got to produce the script without writing anything, but, promised an equal sum upon completion, wrote "The Hostage" in the final three weeks before his deadline.
Director Moore has opened her version of "The Hostage" on a surprisingly serious, almost somber note, with tenor Ciaran Sheehan, whose ringing voice is one of the Irish Rep’s most remarkable assets, crossing the stage as the houselights are dimming, to sing "Red Roses for Me," an old Irish air to which the playwright Sean O’Casey wrote an evocative and poignant set of lyrics.
Moore here demonstrates the courage to begin quietly, perhaps in tribute to the seriousness that underlies the antics of "The Hostage," much as Behan’s outrageous public behavior tended to cloud the fact that, behind the mask of a drunken clown, he was a serious, gifted and even tortured artist.
Soon thereafter all hell breaks loose in the Dublin brothel that is the play’s setting. Described as "an old house . . . that has seen better days," the bawdy house run by Meg and Pat in 1960 might easily be the same Dublin tenement occupied in 1922 by Jack Boyle and his family in playwright O’Casey’s great "Juno and the Paycock."
At the core of "The Hostage," beneath the play’s self-protecting brass and blather, is a brief and furtive love affair of singular purity involving a pair of naive 19-year-olds, the brothel’s skivvy, Teresa, and the doomed young British conscript, Leslie Williams, whose sad situation gives the play its title.
The Irish Rep has been exceedingly fortunate in finding two young actors, Derdriu Ring and Erik Singer, both making their New York professional debuts.
Heading up the play’s complement of rogues and rascals are the Rep’s redoubtable Terry Donnelly as Meg, the brothel’s boss, and Dubliner Anto Nolan, making an outstanding Rep debut as Pat, her consort, a "patriot" who lost a leg in the interests of Irish freedom.
Outstanding are Elizabeth Whyte as Miss Gilchrist, the "sociable worker" from the St. Vincent de Paul Society, and James A. Stephens, recently in the group’s production of G.B. Shaw’s "Don Juan in Hell," doing a bang up job as Monsewer, the pipe-playing Protestant whose inherent dignity never quite disguises his rattling madness.
Fine among the hookers and transexuals who call the place home are Fidelma Murphy as Ropeen, an aging whore at the end of her tether, Barry McNabb as Rio Rita, a gender-bending queen in a duststorm of silk and paisley shawls and scarves, Steven A. Ward as a gay, black prizefighter named Princess Grace, John O’Callaghan as a drunken Russian sailor, and Ciaran O’Reilly, the Rep’s producing director, as the befuddled Mr. Mulleady, who’s not above showing Miss Gilchrist, who thinks the British Royal Family is "lovely," a thing or two about Ireland.
One inescapable question arises. Has "The Hostage" aged? In a way, it has. Mentions of Diana Dors and the Wolfenden Report fall fairly flat, as do references to British colonial misdeeds in Kenya and Cyprus. Even naming a boxer Princess Grace isn’t exactly a jape of the fullest freshness. The spine of "The Hostage," however, holds firm despite the passage of time.
Congratulations are due to the Irish Rep for realizing that "The Hostage" could still work and, especially, for remaining aware of the wisdom and seriousness underlying Behan’s gifts as an incorrigible prankster.