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THEATER : Anger and Irony in Ireland : Brendan Dillon's 'Neutrality' explores how enemies coexist during World War II.

August 18, 1995|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; T.H. McCulloh writes regularly about theater for The Times

NORTH HOLLYWOOD — The "troubles" in Ireland have been going on for centuries. Outside of Irish passion, one thing that has kept the Irish going is their sense of humor, even concerning the troubles.

Irish playwright Brendan Dillon says even the title of his play opening this weekend at American Renegade Theatre, "Neutrality," is a sort of joke.

"It's an ironic title," Dillon says. "It's almost like an oxymoron. Irish neutrality. Is that an oxymoron? Can the Irish possibly be neutral? It's impossible."

Actually the title is double-edged. During World War II, when the play is set, Ireland, although still a dominion of Great Britain, declared itself neutral under international law. It vowed defensive military action against invaders, whether German, British or American.

Dillon was an infantry captain at the time. England was very short of coal for the war effort, and his unit was assigned to dig coal in County Kildare. At night they would go to a beautiful hotel nearby.

"In the hotel," he says, "we met all sorts of people, German, Chinese and English internees, and various other people who came down on southern Irish soil. We had to intern them, and they all came together."

He remembers a German U-boat crew, whose sub had been sunk by a depth charge and who had been picked up by an Irish freighter carrying oranges. There were also Royal Air Force crews downed on the Irish coast. They were all interned, but they were allowed to go out at night, to the same hotel.

The official attitude was, Dillon recalls: " 'You're all gentlemen. Go to the hotel, but don't run away.' They didn't. They were delighted to be in Ireland."

There was also a charming priest, a classical pianist who thought it would be a wonderful idea to have a Christmas party, with all the traditional enemies together. Neutrality was taken to its limits, with typical Irish humor, and Dillon had an idea for a play.

"Neutrality" is full of humor and music, but it has also been a vehicle for some of Dillon's passionate feelings about his homeland. Trained at the Abbey Theatre, with a lengthy list of credits (the films "My Fair Lady" and "The Molly Maguires" among them), the actor-director is still fervent about the continuing Irish problem.

Dillon explains, "The play's sort of a sociopolitical, historical, religious play dealing with many aspects of the Irish character. It's very important, and very difficult, for people outside Ireland to understand the complexity of the Irish political situation. I was hoping to clarify that."

Dillon refers to himself as a "very strong orthodox Catholic," and believes that the Irish troubles are primarily a religious war.

"If we take a similar country, like Switzerland," he says, "you have Protestants and Catholics who dislike each other very much, but they don't quarrel, because they're all very comfortable. When one section of the population is very uncomfortable, and another section is more or less exploiting them, sooner or later things are going to blow up. That's what happens."

The handsome but brutish Irishman who is the central figure in the drama is played by James Dillon, the playwright's son. The younger Dillon, born and reared in the United States, also has impressive credits, from television to theater, including six plays directed by his father. He also has strong ideas about the Irish question.

"I was raised under Irish principles," James Dillon says, "and Irish train of thought. It all boils down to a thing of land. All kinds of crap has arisen out of that. When I was in Belfast, I noticed that it's more of a sectarian thing on the Protestant side, and more of a land thing on the Catholic side. The Protestants will say that they will kill you just because you're Catholic. The Catholics will say, 'We're going to kill you because we want our land back.' "

The younger Dillon admits to having some of the same anger his character in the play has. But he also, along with his father, relishes the Irish sense of humor.

"That's one way," James Dillon says, "the Irish have dealt with the tragedies over the years--finding the humor in it."

Where and When

What: "Neutrality."

Location: American Renegade Theatre, 11305 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood.

Hours: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 8.

Price: $12 to $15.

Call: (818) 763-4430.

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