Editors' pick

Irish Authors Held Hostage


Editorial Review

By Celia Wren review this show in 2006

If you enrolled a gaggle of "Saturday Night Live" writers in English 101 as taught by poet Seamus Heaney, they might whip up a droll spoof like "Irish Authors Held Hostage," now at the Warehouse Theater Second Stage.

John Morogiello's play riffs on a brilliantly zany premise: A crew of terrorists from around the world has opted, for reasons not clear, to kidnap the celebrities of Irish literature. Unfortunately for the terrorists, who include Islamic extremists, IRA types and a militant North Korean, these Emerald Isle scribblers are not easily cowed, even at gunpoint.

"Irish Authors" brims with an erudite postmodern whimsy that, at its most inspired moments, recalls Tom Stoppard. And the play -- glimpsed in a shorter version at the 2003 Washington Theatre Festival, and premiered in its current full-length form the following year at the New York International Fringe Festival -- is structured as a set of variations on a theme. James Joyce bounces incomprehensible "Finnegans Wake"-style sentences off an unhinged American right-winger. Lady Augusta Gregory, noted promoter of Irish drama, manhandles a Basque separatist. A logorrheic George Bernard Shaw spouts crackpot theories at a Colombian drug lord. The scenarios, enacted by an ensemble of four, are enchantingly kooky.

The entertainment quotient stays high even when Morogiello opts for easy laughs and, more rarely, arch contemporary allusions (a Michael Flatley reference, for example). When the foppish Oscar Wilde (Morogiello), ogling his kaffiyeh-wearing jailer Achmed (Terence Heffernan), expresses a yen for a cigarette, the Arab tersely replies: "This is a nonsmoking jihad." Later on, mistaking a Yorkshire accent for an Irish one, Achmed erroneously kidnaps a sex-starved Emily Bronte (Lori Boyd). Live and learn.

But more often, the comedy is agreeably bookish. Theatergoers with a liberal-arts background will be equipped to enjoy most of Morogiello's humor, but it helps to have a knowledge of "Ulysses," Shavian philosophy and the influence of Noh drama on W.B. Yeats.

Morogiello does eke his joke out a little further than is wise, crafting sketches for such less iconic figures as Sean O'Casey, J.M. Synge and Brendan Behan and spinning the play out to 90 minutes, which feels about 20 minutes too long. He also misses an opportunity to ratchet up the momentum and elaborate the plotting. Lacking a sense of build, the stop-and-start scenes in "Irish Authors" ultimately feel a little like "Groundhog Day" without that film's resolution.

Under Martin Blanco's direction, the actors deadpan gamely through all the wackiness, doubling in numerous roles. Terence Aselford is particularly amusing as a Sphinxlike Samuel Beckett and a grimacing Bram Stoker (yes, the author of "Dracula" was Irish). Heffernan resolutely shoulders the roles of various terrorists, and Morogiello displays some comic flair as Wilde and a bemused, bow-tie-wearing Yeats, among other characters. Boyd is intense and quirky as all the female characters; she's also responsible for the tongue-in-cheek costumes, which include a bubblegum-pink silk dress and matching bonnet for Bronte, and an extravagant lace cravat for Wilde.

Suitably enough for a play so geared toward concept, the set consists only of chairs, a table and an easel that bears the name of each kidnapped Irish author during his or her scene. But on the auditory front, the production is a little more elaborate, with onstage instrumentalists contributing traditional Irish music between the scenes (the performers vary day to day). Judging from the catchy tunes played on one recent evening, the music makes a pleasant counterweight to the script's dizzy wit.

Let's hope that Morogiello continues to polish and streamline this clever show. In a further draft, "Irish Authors" could be, well, dynamite.