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FOR SOME time now I've had a ticket for a charter flight scheduled to leave for London the day after summer school closes. From there I'd planned to get to Dublin and then on to Galway, where, I'm told, I will find relatives--whose existence I have previously been quite unaware of--but who have nonetheless managed to acquire a hotel and are, surprisingly enough, getting on. Well, seeing Brendan Behan's The Hostage at the Loeb a few nights ago almost changed all that. Though I'm sure my second cousin's hostel cannot be half as entertaining as the brothel in which Behan's play is set (in fact, to judge from those of my relatives who came to this country, I'm sure it's not even a tiny bit as entertaining), I was nevertheless ready to leave for Ireland as soon as the play ended. Except for the fact that it would have entailed explaining the whole situation to the secretary at Charter Flights, I'd probably be in Dublin right now.
Of course, I've no way of knowing if The Hostage comes to anything like "approximating the Irish character, "but that really doesn't matter since, in any case, The Hostage is a play which refuses to be judged by any consistent set of standards. If it must be genre-ized, it would probably come fairly close to being a bawdy, Gaelic Kaufman and Hart with a bit of Brecht thrown in--a description which however enticing it might look as a publicity blurb, still ignores the fundamental fact that this play is basically an extended music hall entertainment.
What plot there is concerns a young Cockney soldier by the name of Leslie (Michael Sacks), who is being held hostage by the I.R.A. of modern day Ireland in reprisal for one of their own boys scheduled to be hung in the Belfast Jail. Fortunately for the audience, the soldier is hidden in the midst of a Dublin brothel, which is supposedly so hot the officials would never even suspect it of revolutionary activity. Full of whores, queers, and their fellow eccentrics, the place is a kind of Cambridge city councillor's nightmare of what happens if you don't regulate rooming houses.
Eugene Lee's attractive set emphasizes the duplicity in the situation. With a photo-collage of the Easter Uprising for a backdrop, the rough-hewn wooden staging has been built around a series of burlesque devices: there is a set of three doors to facilitate confusion, lots of ramps and runways that bring the actors right up to their audience, and a piano at dead center to give the whole thing some stability. In short, this juxtaposition of the tragic and the comic pinpoints the mentality of a people who have survived politics (both their side's and the other's) only because they have grown accustomed to treating life and all it brings as, at best, a blasphemous joke. As The Hostage makes clear, even death--however black--has its own peculiar humor.
SO IF politics is at the bone of this play, it is the reliable old human comedy that constitutes most of its meat. Which, considering one's dealing here with a whorehouse, may be an unfortunate choice of metaphor, however crudely it does demonstrate how this particular comedy often goes. Certainly, the most hilarious bits (and they embrace a whole gamut of comedy) belong to Joan Tolentino, as Miss Gilchrist, a social worker who "takes insults in the name of our insulted saviour." Since she's more Mary Magdalen than Virgin Mary, she ends up having to take a good many, too--which is all to the better, since she lets go with the most wonderful shriek everytime someone in the cast tries to feel her up.
Her only comic equal in this production is Leland Moss, as the homosexual Rio Rita. Not content to play the stage queen (masculine) as a simple grotesque, Moss maintains some semblance of delicacy. If the way he kept jumping up and down in his seat is any indication, the flamer of a middle-aged fag who ended up in the seat next to me simply loved Rita--so I guess Moss also puts in a pretty credible performance. At any rate, he is the only actor on stage who manages to stay in character for the entire evening, which in this production is something of an accomplishment.
Of course, if the director, Louis Criss, should require any defense, he need only point to no less a name than Emerson--consistency is the bugaboo of little minds, and Criss will have none of it. He always keeps the pace moving fast (this is one three-hour Loeb production that doesn't drag), sometimes too fast (the ending, particularly, is quite confusing), while all the time throwing in lets of contemporary asides. I could quibble over whether many of the adlibs should have been included. (Mentioning Bristol, Disneyland, and Somerville in the same line doesn't strike me as particularly funny. Even black humor has limits.) But it soon becomes pointless to argue over individual pieces--suffice to say, that when they are good, they are very, very good although when they are bad they are quite horrid.
ON THE other hand, only a black Protestant(the phrase, dating back before the '54 desegregation decision refers to one's soul, not his race), only one of their kind could quibble with the show's numerous song and dance numbers. If this review were to mention all the good ones, it would end up becoming a Rabelaisian shopping list. Terrence Currier--who too often seemed to underplay his being the play's resident skeptic--unleashes a good, old-fashioned tenor. Ted D'Arms as Monsewer, an English anglophobe (a part almost too small for the amount of good things he puts into it) does a bit called "The Captains and the Kings" which would be the high point in any Tony Richardson film. And, as far as showstoppers, there is always Joan Tolentino's "Don't Muck About With the Moon"--which time I'm sure she'll have added another stanza or two.
Probably the best number, though, belongs to an actress who works so hard at it, she almost makes you believe she can't sing. Don't believe it. From her first words as Meg Dillon, the caretaker's mistress, Sheila Hart is in character as a woman (Meg) relaxed and yet confident as she consciously plays ringmaster to the living theatre that is her brothel. In just a few seconds, she similarly includes the audience in her barrage of insults and confidences. Her bitter ballad near the end of the second act, where she is backed by the male members of the cast, is simultaneously heartbreaking and triumphant, and I'm sure that if I were more of an Irishman it would have brought me pretty close to tears.
And knowing that Miss Hart also doubles as the show's choreographer, I couldn't help but sympathize with her. One of my more Portnoy-esque childhood memories is of a kindergarten pageant where I, part of a chorus line, was supposed to dance the Irish jig. No matter how both my mother and the teacher pleaded, I could never manage the damn thing and botched it terribly. When this cast joins in a grand chorus line, all dancing--after just a few hesitations--pretty competently, I could really appreciate the achievement. The cast does less well with their brogues. None could hang onto them for any length of time. It was one place, where I'm sure me granmuther could have taught them a thing or two.
IT'S impossible to synthesize the cumulative effect of such a play. The Hostage usually seems to proceed, like a variety show, from one comedy bit to another. Then, suddenly, it will stop. Some of the two-dimensional characters we've been laughing at fade into the background while others blossom into real three-dimensional human beings. The result are often quite moving. When Leslie (in which role Michael Sacks is again perfectly cast--in his khaki he seems out of a World War II movie, an English Van Heflin both in costume and good spirits), the British soldier stops in the second act while realizing he shares the plight of the boy in the Belfast Jail, and when his girlfriend (Ann Sachs who is just lovely as a convent-bred girl with a heart of gold) closes the play with an angry indictment, The Hostage approaches a truth as trite as it is universal, one not to be easily dismissed.
Undoubtedly, many of the minor problems of timing and taste will work themselves out during the play's run. But that's really no excuse for not going to see The Hostage immediately, for you may find you even want to see it a second time. (And when you go, get to the Loeb early. The cast warms up by singing folk songs as the audience arrives. In fact, if you're up to it you really should try to get a songsheet for yourself, so you can join in.) As for myself, I'll delay a return visit till as close to my departure time as possible. For unless I can also convince the secretary at Charter Flights to see this production, I don't want to make the remaining weeks of summer school seem any longer than they already do.
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