WHILE A COMEDY written about the Irish Republican Army would seem impossible now (considering the tragic history of the last 30 years), it was an unlikely topic even back in 1958. In those more innocent and less bloody times, playwright and all-around troublemaker Brendan Behan wrote The Hostage, an odd and rambling farce partly informed by his own life as an active member of the IRA.
Theater Schmeater through May 6
Behan liked to describe himself as a "drinker with a writing problem," and his narrative technique certainly has an intoxicated weave to it. The relatively skimpy plot involves the proprietors of what is supposed to be an IRA "safe house" but has actually sunk from a disreputable boarding house into a brothel. Still, both Pat (Charles Leggett) and Meg (Heather Newman) seem cheerful in spite of having to mediate the occasional argument between the working ladies. So it's with wary suspicion that they invite in an IRA officer who's brought along a young British soldier (Craig Welzbacher) to be held as a bargaining chip against an IRA political prisoner.
That's certainly a serviceable basis for a drama, but Behan's take on the material is broadly farcical, as practically every inhabitant in the whorehouse decides that the young soldier looks pretty tasty. The Hostage also has countless subplots and ancillary characters (a friend commented that there always seem to be a couple too many prostitutes in any given scene), along with the occasional song and dance number. As with Brecht, these musical interludes seek to comment on the action rather than advance the plot, although Behan's cheerful cynicism rarely attains detailed social insight.
Both Leggett and Newman work tremendously hard—with some effect—to keep not only the characters in their establishment in line but the story itself striding forward. But despite their best efforts, this play is simply impossible to corral without forceful direction, and director Susanna Wilson proves inadequate to the (admittedly Herculean) task. Characters rush onstage and cluster pointlessly, then charge off en masse. A number of anachronistic monologues about British popular culture are provided for actress Wendy Herlich (in the thankless role of the evangelical Miss Gilchrist), and practically every actor in the large cast not only tears through the show at breakneck speed but bellows in an attempt to make up for the lack of narrative impetus. In this case, at least, louder and faster do not necessarily equal funnier, and like a neighbor's noisy party, this production is probably a lot more fun to be in the middle of than to have to listen to.