There's a serious political drama in Brendan Behan's "The Hostage." There's also a raucous musical. In Center Stage's new production, it's not the most comfortable mix. At times, it's downright jarring.
And that's the point. Life and death, comedy and tragedy bump up against each other in this freewheeling 1958 play. At the end of the first act, for example, the motley residents of the play's Dublin boarding house are dancing up a storm when two IRA soldiers burst in holding a British soldier at gunpoint.
It's a chilling moment, but only a moment. That's how long serious emotions last in Behan's self-described "uproarious tragedy" before more high jinks set in. In this case, the somber mood is broken by the hostage himself, who launches into a reprise of one of the play's catchiest ditties, with the comic opening line: "There's no place on Earth like the world."
But while director Irene Lewis effectively keeps the tone from lapsing into pathos, she also lets the rowdy music hall interludes go on far too long. This is particularly true in the two acts after intermission. By then, the play's split personality has already been so well-established, the audience knows that whenever joy erupts, catastrophe cannot be far behind.
Much of the play's divided nature is due to its unusual history. Behan wrote the original version, "An Giall," in Gaelic, the language in which it was first performed in Dublin. When British director Joan Littlewood produced it at her experimental Theatre Workshop in London, however, she didn't merely stage an English-language version. She added more songs and more characters, including prostitutes and a homosexual couple, infusing the play with a music-hall flavor that begins in the opening scene as the boarding house crew indulges in a rousing Irish jig.
In Center Stage's Head Theater, Lewis and set designer Neil Patel have augmented this spirit of exuberance by transforming the theater into a working cabaret. Many of the theatergoers are seated at tables. The waiters double as extras on stage. Cast members make frequent entrances and exits through the audience, which is already treated to an abundance of direct address.
The musical accompaniment, provided by the versatile duo of composer/musical director Karen Hansen and Lisle Kulbach, is top-notch, as is the lively choreography of Willie Rosario. And many of the secondary performances are a hoot, particularly those of Tom Flynn as a flamboyant homosexual hustler and Jennifer Smith as a lecherous social worker who is so greedy for the spotlight, she is carried off stage singing on more than one occasion.
But the overall effect is a ramshackle approach to a ramshackle play. Though the auxiliary antics may be appropriate, they begin to wear thin around the time Lewis inserts a long scene in which the actors break character and begin arguing, and the stage manager steps on stage to deliver a misplaced prop.
Part of the problem is that, by this time, you've come to care about Leslie, the British hostage (boyish, likable Reese Madigan) and Teresa, the young, convent-bred girl (sweetly played by Rosemarie DeWitt) who's fallen in love with him. The IRA has taken the British private in retaliation for one of their own, who is sentenced to die in a Belfast prison the next morning. If there is no reprieve, the IRA will execute the hostage in turn.
There's a lot of talk about dying for Ireland and the glory days of the 1916 Easter Rising, whose veterans include the boarding house owner, a daft codger called "Monsewer," and his loyal crony, Pat, caretaker of the house. Don Perkins' Monsewer -- who is so out of it, he doesn't realize his lodging house has been turned into a brothel -- is saluted whenever he enters a room, and Peter Rogan's weary Pat never tires of reliving the good old days when he lost the use of his leg in battle.
But at the same time that Behan satirized their behavior, he put a human face on "the Troubles" by creating the highly sympathetic characters of Leslie and Teresa. And as the tall tales and music hall mayhem multiply, you find yourself longing to linger over the touching story of this young English boy and Irish girl who discover their own small solution to their countries' discord.
Where: Center Stage, Head Theater, 700 N. Calvert St.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7: 30 p.m. most Sundays, matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays and most Saturdays, and 1 p.m. March 1 and 8. Through April 2. Tickets: $24-$29