KPBS AIRDATE: OCTOBER 15, 1999
At the Old Globe, it’s all about writers. Two plays, two genres, two eras, but the splendor is in the language. In “The Hostage,” a heavily populated dramatic farce by Brendan Behan, the irrepressible Irish playwright inserts his personality, his lifestyle and his politics into every scene. The battle here is for country, for history, for revenge — and for booze. In Donald Margulies’ “Collected Stories,” two female writers duke it out for their friendship, their literary integrity, their very souls. In both vigorous pieces of theater, nothing is quite what it seems.
Set in a Dublin pub-and-brothel, Behan’s sprawling, boisterous, anti-war romp is grounded in his own experience. The writer spent a good deal of his time in bars and behind them, running headlong into both alcoholism and the IRA at the tender age of 13. He was as well known for his blustery, poetic inebriation as for his literary works. All this finds its way into “The Hostage,” often considered his best effort, first produced in 1958, only six years before his untimely, besotted death at age 41.
The play careens wildly between low comedy and dark musings, inviting the audience along for a bumpy, rollicking ride, as if we, too, were part of the ragtag residents of this dowdy bawdy-house: war veterans, spies and social workers, whores and drag-queens, and a young English soldier, held hostage by two IRA goons. The play employs ballads, slapstick, raucous rantings and raunchy humor to satirize social conditions. The production underscores Behan’s personal sense of vitality, humor and joie de vivre, although his theme is the absurdity of war and its waste of young lives. The piece may be four decades old, it should seem fresh, because the political situation hasn’t changed much in Ireland. And yet, in spite of the enormous energy and talent director Jack O’Brien has brought to it, despite all his musical and topical additions, “The Hostage” still feels musty. The production is amusing, enjoyable, but not emotionally engaging.
The ensemble is uneven. Ellen Crawford is exceptional as the singing moll of the barkeep, who’s revealed in a solid but understated performance by Larry Drake. As the mousy social worker, Mary Lou Rosato just about steals the show. In his fantastically cluttered set, Ralph Funicello has created the perfect surroundings for the play’s exuberant chaos.
Next door, far more constrained, focused and provocative, is Anne McNaughton’s nuanced production of “Collected Stories.” Compared to Behan’s intentional unruliness, Donald Margulies’ writing is so precise and magnificent, not a sound or syllable is out of place. The performances are equally flawless: Kandis Chappell is impeccable in reprising the role of the aging writer she created two years ago at South Coast Rep, before the play moved to Broadway and became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and Sarah Rafferty evolves effortlessly from goofy, worshipful student to literary colleague and ultimately, to successful usurper — of her mentor’s story and perhaps of her life. Over the course of six years, we are swept into this relationship, riveted by the moral issues, tantalized intellectually and then left to choose our own loyalties. Margulies trusts his audience to think, and we do. In “Collected Stories,” the design elements brilliantly conspire with the play and the performances to create perhaps the year’s most engaging and outstanding production.
©1999 Patté Productions Inc.