SET IN A DUBLIN BROTHEL, Brendan Behan's 1958 farce The Hostage inserts the struggles between the Irish Republican Army and England into the messy day-to-day lives of that city's underclass. Behan uses song, humor, and evocations of both Irish and Shakespearean drama to capture how joyful art emerges from despair, how political realities are often fabricated, and how seeing the world in terms of stories can both help and hurt. Unfortunately, very little of Behan's genius survives the production now playing at Theater Schmeater.

It's hard to fault the actors. Charles Legget invests Pat, Behan's stand-in, with a blowzy energy that plays well against Heather Newman's smooth Meg, while Jocelyn Brown's controlled work as romantic lead Teresa is enough to make the audience feel her loss of Craig Welzbacher's Leslie, though his performance is as strained as hers is unaffected. Several of the minor roles are also capably played, particularly Brandon Whitehead's layered, anger-filled portrait of brothel resident Rio Rita.

What's missing from The Hostage is any consistent sense of tone. The ensemble isn't bound by similarities in approach or interpretation as much as by high-energy performance. Director Susanna Wilson seems to believe the anarchic heart of Behan's play can be found by making her actors speak loudly and forcefully, and by moving them briskly across the stage. The show's relentlessly shrill, frantic pace sabotages narrative momentum, and keeps any character who could benefit from a more nuanced portrayal from making a sizable impression. One such victim is Wendy Herlich's Miss Gilchrist, who participates in the production's oddest affectation: clumsy, dramatic asides drawing connections between the play's events and modern America. This inclusion is baffling. Behan's play isn't about the connectedness of events, but the universal truths found in events that are historically and culturally specific.

Wilson and her cast obviously admire Behan; one wishes they had placed more trust in his play.

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