Was Irish playwright Brendan Behan a brilliant satirist with a roaring imagination who drank himself into an early grave? Or was he an unfocused hack who got lucky before he drank himself into an early grave?
Based on this silly Orange Coast College production of Behan's 1959 political satire The Hostage, which attempts to lighten things up through disco, Riverdance and cross-dressing, the question of Behan's status as a major playwright will unfortunately go unanswered.
Behan's play is anything but a simple, straightforward piece of drama. Set in a rundown Dublin boarding house that is more brothel and flophouse than four-star lodging, Behan's world is populated by whores, thieves, drunkards, hypocrites and morons. The characters dance jigs and break into crude songs at the drop of a whiskey bottle, all the while bickering, fighting and insulting one another—and the audience.
But this production doesn't know what it wants to be when it grows up; concealed amid the raucous free-for-all is a very serious story. The house is owned by a former Irish Republican Army commander now content to play the bagpipes poorly. His former IRA buddies commandeer the house to hide a young British soldier they've kidnapped. The soldier will be murdered the following morning if authorities proceed with the execution of an Irish national convicted of killing an Ulster policeman.
These stories rattle along like trains on separate tracks—compelling political drama in a house populated by sitcom characters, revolutionary fervor alongside political terrorism enacted by laughably inept volunteers, sincerely patriotic Irish folk songs next to crude vaudeville numbers, a tightly knit household made up of rejects and reprobates. In other words, you have Ireland—or an interesting cross section of Ireland.
But depending on your point of view, the dual tracks lead nowhere, or, in one commentator's view, suggest a “romantic, idealistic Ireland fallen on sordid, materialistic days. . . . [A] heroic Ireland down in the dumps; it is the world in a mess.”
Or a play in a mess. The problem with director Alex Golson's version is that you get the impression it means and says nothing. Littering the action with grotesquely over-the-top cross-dressers, an ensemble that continually chatters and camps it up, and lip-synced disco-dancing interludes isn't only anachronistic and intrusive—but it's also not funny. The result is a production that doesn't use ridicule and absurdity to make an edgy satirical point as much as to make things, well, ridiculous and absurd.
Some fine performances go for naught, particularly Martin Winslow's Pat, the goodhearted drunk who runs the place; D.J. Lapite's Leslie, the unfortunate hostage; and Jessica Hutchinson's Christian zealot Miss Gilchrist. Worse, The Hostage itself feels imprisoned by this rather tasteless production.
The Hostage at Orange Coast College's Drama Lab Theatre, 2701 Fairview Rd., Costa Mesa, (714) 432-5880. Thurs.-Sat., Dec. 7-9 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. $9.