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Snakes on a Plane. Irish Authors Held Hostage. Clearly, we’re entering an age of titular precision. The makers of this summer’s serpentine aviation flick are still at work, so we’ll have to see how they fulfill that title’s promise, but no one who catches John Morogiello’s uproarious evening of Hibernian scribenapping skits will ever accuse him of misrepresenting the entertainment he’s concocted. It is—not to put too fine a point on it—expressly, absolutely, in every respect about Irish authors being held hostage.
Elegant in its simplicity, hilarious in its scholastic rigor, sophomoric as only a writer who was a really nerdy sophomore could make it, the 90-minute evening at the Warehouse Second Stage is 11 brisk variations on that singular theme. Each sketch pairs a famous Irish author with a perversely suitable—if chronologically or geographically unlikely—terrorist, and sits back to see who scares more easily. Bram Stoker, for instance, keeps glancing thirstily at his captor’s jugular while being told he’ll be stuffed into a box and buried so deep he’ll be lucky if he ever sees the light of day again. Oscar Wilde, meanwhile, perks right up when a strapping jihadist binds him to a chair and talks of virgins in paradise (“Your cause begins to intrigue”).
James Joyce (“Such a terrible lot to do to die to…”) finds himself held by an American gun nut who thinks he makes an eerie sort of sense, while George Bernard Shaw is so annoyed by the political apathy of the Latino narcoterrorist holding him hostage that he very nearly talks the poor guy to death. Samuel Beckett, told by a void-averse tormentor that he may leave anytime he likes, says, “I will go,” but, of course, doesn’t.
Though it’s obviously helpful if patrons have a little knowledge of Irish literature, it’s not really necessary. Morogiello has been clever about supplying enough information with the jokes to make an audience feel smart when it laughs. And as he’s onstage himself, he can even make impromptu adjustments if it appears something isn’t quite coming across. That’s him in a fright wig as Wilde, and again as a goodly number of the other poets, playwrights, and potential pipe-bombers, accompanied by three reliably antic cast members (Terence Aselford, Terence Heffernan, and Lori Boyd) who double, triple, and quadruple in roles on both sides of the author/terrorist divide. And just for a bit of variety, a pair of musicians (at the opening it was Tina Eck and Matt Shortridge) sit at the side of the stage, fiddling, whistling, and singing between sketches.
Though there are plenty of Irish authors to go around, recognizable extremists are in shorter supply, and Morogiello keeps returning to Heffernan’s turbaned, sexually changeable Arab—“Oscar Wilde had me confused” he tells Emily Brontë (who’s English, but never mind)—when he runs out of other alternatives. Martin Blanco’s knockabout staging keeps things safely in Saturday Night Live territory, treating the material solely as an elaborate intellectual joke rather than risking political seriousness. When the writers lock horns with their captors, it’s strictly in literary terms.
As evenings of sketches are wont to do, Irish Authors feels a bit stretched in its middle section, but it rebounds nicely with the Beckett sketch and reaches a kind of Emerald Isle nirvana with a Brendan Behan bit (“not a writer with a drinking problem, but a drinker with a writing problem”) that includes both a rousing chorus of “O Muslim Boy” (to the tune of “O Danny Boy”) and some feverish Michael Flatley–style hoofing.
A few years ago, I was startled to discover that a number of otherwise well-informed folks at Arena Stage were under the impression that Hallelujah Baby!, a musical look at American race relations that the troupe was about to produce, had been a Broadway smash in the 1960s. It was actually the Tony winner for Best Musical in a genuinely wretched year (the other nominees were The Happy Time, Illya Darling, and How Now, Dow Jones), which is not quite the same thing. Would they have been as excited about producing it, I wondered, if they had known it had limped through an eight-month run and expired quietly when star Leslie Uggams went on to other projects? Arena plowed ahead, hiring librettist Arthur Laurents, whom most critics had blamed for the original’s failure, to direct a revival that predictably fizzled.
Then last year, the folks at Ford’s Theatre began making similarly upbeat noises about Shenandoah, an earnest Civil War musical that got swamped by The Wiz at the 1975 Tonys. That, too, had been a less-than-stellar Broadway season (the other musical nominees were Mack & Mabel, which ran a snappy seven weeks, and The Lieutenant, which didn’t quite last two). But with slack competition and a populist post-Vietnam anti-war message (rendered uncontroversial both by association with a century-old conflict and by songs so comfortably old-fashioned they might have been written by Jerome Kern), Shenandoah managed to run more than 1,000 performances.
Still, it was never much more than a treacly lecture on pacifism and family values, and that’s what it remains in Ford’s solidly stolid revival. (An intriguing sidelight on those family values: The Broadway production was financed, according to theater historian Steven Suskin in More Opening Nights on Broadway, largely by a man “under indictment for distributing pornographic material—School Girls was the title cited—who figured Shenandoah would buy him some points with the Feds.”)
In any event, all this history is more fun than the history being peddled in the attractive but dull production Jeff Calhoun and a number of talented cohorts have mounted at the theater where Lincoln was shot. The evening begins with a neat visual trick—military uniforms that turn soldiers into rebels when they face right and Yankees when they face left. But no sooner has this staging fillip registered than you realize it presents the director with a dilemma: He can either keep his actors in profile for the rest of the opening number or let them face front and have the audience concentrate on the costume designer’s gray-meets-blue seams and stitching rather than the lyrics. Calhoun splits the difference, partly because he’s pretty much exhausted the former approach by the end of the second chorus, and partly because the lyrics are repetitive anyway.
Then it’s on to the story, which involves widower Charlie Anderson (Quantum Leap’s Scott Bakula) and the mostly grown children he intends to keep out of the war that’s raging around his Virginia farm. “It’s got nothing to do with us,” he declares as he launches into the first of the pacifist anthems that will make him the moral center of the show. Although his reedy baritone makes him sound more like a romantic lead than a plummy patriarch, Bakula is perfectly persuasive, watching his clan get caught up in the fighting and…well, even if you haven’t seen the Jimmy Stewart movie, you can probably guess the rest.
Apart from a pacifist message imparted in terms bald enough to prompt eye-rolling among even the most fervent anti-war advocates, the musical’s chief problem is a book that barely seems on speaking terms with the songs. Even as you admire a few of the central performances—Charlie’s daughter (a perky Megan Lewis) being wooed by the Confederacy’s most bashful soldier (a goofy Noah Racey)—you can’t help wincing at the rough transitions they’re forced to negotiate by a narrative that’s forever interrupting anti-war rhetoric for nondescript ballads and following fervent peacenik songs with romantic frippery. What does it say when the most rousing number in a pacifist musical is a rollicking, vaguely dirty paean to the joys of combat (“Next to bein’ hugged and kissed/I like makin’ me a fist”)? Calhoun has staged it as an exuberant outtake from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, but he can’t make sense of it.
Ford’s design team has dressed, lit, and framed Shenandoah prettily (topping the frame with what I suppose must be a soaring eagle, though it looks more like the national duck). But they’re gussying up a show that wasn’t of its time in its time and that has only dated further in the intervening decades.CP