Tony Mastroianni Review Collection

Play House Has a Brawl in "Hostage"

Cleveland Press February 8, 1967

Brendan Behan's variety show called "The Hostage" is a play because it takes place in a theater. If the proscenium and stage were not there you might take it for a saloon party.

The late Irish wit, writer and boozer wrote a play that makes audiences laugh while he offends everyone. And if such a description of Behan seems offensive, Behan himself would be the first to jeer at the thought and would list his drinking abilities first -- not last.

Behan's bawdy romp pokes fun at the English, the Irish, the church, the law, government, race, politics, police, army and any other institution one of his wild swings might hit.

All he liked were people, and those he loved. He figured them to be a hopeless and pathetic lot and out of all the vulgarities and ribaldry of "The Hostage" emerges the plaintive and lonely line: "Nobody loves you like yourself."

"The Hostage" is less a play than it is a vaudeville show with a thin plot line; a barroom brawl with two intermissions.

What little story it has is about the kidnapping of a British soldier by Irish patriots and his death in reprisal for the execution of an Irishman who has killed a policeman.

THE TIME IS THE PRESENT and the setting a brothel peopled by drunks, prostitutes, homosexuals, aging patriots living in the past and young patriots who don't know what the present is all about.

The two innocents among them are a young serving girl and the English soldier.

It doesn't sound like much of a story and it isn't. It is mostly a collection of songs, most of them bawdy,.and gags, most of them blue. Characters stand up and insult each other, come forward and talk to the audience. Topical references have been tossed in and a feeling of improvisation pervades the theater.

The show has played Cleveland once before, when a touring company presented it at the Hanna. Now, while there isn't much that can be done to scrub the material there are subtle differences in the presentations. Where the national company emphasized the vulgarities, the Play House group makes it all seem rather mischievous.

DIRECTOR Richard Oberlin opens the show brightly and keeps it that way. If Behan's script is essentially a series of vaudeville routines, then this is the way to play it.

The acting company is a smoothly working unit, a genuine ensemble group. You would think that they had been doing English music hall routines all their lives.

Edith Owen is perfect as a sanctimonious old gal who isn't as pure as she seems. June Gibbons gives the impression of toughness combined with a soft heart. Robert Allman, for all of his rapid-fire jokes, gives us a portrait of a cynical man whose dreams of the past grow wilder and whose war wounds grow more painful as the liquor flows faster and the night grows longer.

BOB MOAK AND SUSAN McARTHUR as the innocents make their quiet roles stand out in the midst of all the bedlam.

Obviously, "The Hostage" is not for anyone who is offended by ribaldry. But there are others who may not like it for different reasons. Humor, especially American humor, has been severely limited in recent years by fears of offending particular groups -- be they based on religion, race, nationality or any other grouping.

Behan was an unfettered spirit and recognized no restrictions. Even his beloved Irish heritage was a subject for fun when he was moved to laugh.

Though the unconventional structure of his play is modern, his humor goes back to another period. Indeed, it is almost as old as some of his jokes.