Derdriu Ring and Erik Singerin The Hostage(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Derdriu Ring and Erik Singer
in The Hostage
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Hard to believe, but mention of Brendan Behan today draws a preponderance of blank stares, even among literary types who fancy themselves in-the-know. During the days of the New Frontier, however, when much of the country was feeling smugly urbane for having elected a president who was Irish-Catholic and well-read, this wild Irish writer was very nearly a household name. And, in New York City--where his temporary home, the Hotel Chelsea, was headquarters of East Coast bohemia--Behan was as celebrated as his bad-boy acquaintances Norman Mailer and Tennessee Williams.

Which is not to say that Behan was as prolific as those two Americans. On the contrary, his reputation was based on a single memoir and two strikingly original plays. (Another play by Behan and a dramatization of the autobiography were staged after his 1964 death.) But, when Behan's work first appeared, it generated the same sort of shock waves as that of Mailer's and Williams', and his brash persona and relentless mouth made the man as newsworthy as his writing. He seemed, for a time, integral to the Zeitgeist.

The estimable Irish Repertory Theatre is currently reviving Behan's The Hostage, a comedy-drama noteworthy for its abundance of vivid, eccentric characters. Originally written in Gaelic, The Hostage came to wide public notice in 1958 in an English translation by the author, directed by the visionary Joan Littlewood in London's East End. It was produced on Broadway in 1960 and revived Off-Broadway in 1962. If ever a play belonged in a cozy, intimate space, this is it. The current engagement, which opened on October 29, runs through Sunday, December 10 at the Irish Rep's snug playhouse in Chelsea.

Under the direction of Irish Rep artistic director Charlotte Moore, a 16-member cast captures the wild, mercurial spirit of Behan's imagination. Their rowdy performance lasts slightly more than two hours, and that time passes in a flash. The production's one intermission is an unwelcome interruption in the fast-paced blend of merriment and pathos.

The action of The Hostage takes place in 1958 in a Dublin flophouse owned by a barmy Anglo-Irishman with militant Republican sympathies. The landlord has agreed to shelter two operatives of the Irish Republican Army and their prisoner, an 18-year-old English soldier snared in reprisal for the capital sentence just passed on an IRA member convicted of shooting a policeman. The whores and scruffy losers who inhabit the boarding house have been keening over news accounts of the young IRA man awaiting execution in a Belfast jail. The arrival of the English hostage, appealingly wet behind his ears, transforms the weird ecosystem of the residence, eliciting humane responses from its denizens and mitigating their patriotic self-righteousness.

Throughout The Hostage, Behan is occupied with serious topics such as national and ethnic identity, territorial autonomy, and the human cost of terrorism and political strife. But he never capitulates to solemnity or genuine partisanship. For a final chorus to be sung after a spate of gunfire and the death of one of the play's most sympathetic characters, Behan comes up with a bouncy, iconoclastic refrain, rather than the dirge that might be expected: "The bells of hell/Go ting-a-ling-a-ling/For you but not for me./Oh death where is thy/Sting-a-ling-a-ling/Or grave thy victory?"

As that ditty suggests, The Hostage is as much in the tradition of British Music Hall as in the lineage of Irish drama. Frequently, songs or lively dances disrupt the flow of dialogue. At times, music and choreography seem about to derail the narrative. In every case, they prove to enhance the audience's grasp of Behan's characters and his imaginative universe.

Ciarán Sheehan and Fidelma Murphyin The Hostage(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Ciarán Sheehan and Fidelma Murphy
in The Hostage
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Moore has assembled a cast that does as much justice to the songs, dances, and Music Hall blarney as to the poignant sections of Behan's drama. Many of the actors are familiar from prior Irish Rep productions--among them, Terry Donnelly, Jacqueline Kealy, Denis O'Neill, Ciarán O'Reilly, Ciarán Sheehan, James A. Stephens, and Elizabeth Whyte. The individual performances, though by-and-large admirable, are far less noteworthy than the ensemble which, more than the sum of its parts, is a juggernaut of compelling motion and sound.

Erik Singer, an American alumnus of Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art in London, makes a propitious New York debut in the title role. Singer interprets Leslie Williams, the English soldier, as a curious alloy of adolescent diffidence and schoolboy cheek. With a face as sensitive and raw as a new wound, Singer nails the characterization before uttering his first line of dialogue. When the actor speaks, he does so in flawless dialect, combining youthful enthusiasm, earnest bravery, and a little wisdom of the streets.

Derdriu Ring, as Teresa, the convent girl turned chambermaid who gives her heart and virginity to the hostage, is Singer's peer. She benefits, however, from having a role that's more amply written and that carries less symbolic baggage than Singer's. The relationship between Leslie and Teresa is the most schematic part of the play and a bit hackneyed; but the two young actors have sufficient technique and are able to muster the chemistry necessary to make Behan's working class Juliet and Romeo fresh and convincing.

The Irish Rep's auditorium on West 22nd Street, though nicely renovated several seasons ago, is cramped and oddly configured, with two banks of seats perpendicular to each other and separated by an imposing column (presumably integral to the building's structure). The company's productions, which are forced to maneuver around that inconvenient column, often fit awkwardly between the two sections of spectators. For The Hostage, Moore and stage designers Eugene Lee and N. Joseph DeTullio manage to use the ungainly playhouse effectively and in a way that suits Behan's unconventional material.

The stage set represents the flophouse lounge, a bedroom and toilet, and a staircase to the upper floors. Moore keeps the whole cast visible to the audience throughout the evening, with actors playing their scenes mostly at center stage while the other members of the company lounge in an adjacent "room," on the stairs, or at the periphery of the stage, observing the scenes they're not in. This creates an atmosphere of Brechtian theatricality that suits the Music Hall and absurdist aspects of The Hostage but doesn't preclude the audience empathizing with Behan's drama of vengeance and reconciliation.

Behan's plays have huge casts. Even when some roles are doubled, they require a lot of multi-talented performers. This may be why The Hostage has seldom been revived over the past 40 years. The Irish Rep production is a rare opportunity to discover an important figure of Irish culture and to lift one's spirits with a bawdy, blistering hodgepodge of melody, comedy, suspense, and inspired silliness.