Playwright Martin McDonagh has a rep as a hard-drinking Irishman, an angry and dyspeptic glorifier of domineering mothers, gravediggers, cripples (okay, let’s say differently abled wheelchair-bound schemers) and, in the case of A Behanding In Spokane (now playing at the Gremlin Theatre, through Dec 16) deranged searchers-for-severed-hands.
But this is unfounded. Hard-drinking? Okay, maybe. Angry and nasty? No way. In fact, McDonagh writes with affectionate glee. He celebrates people on the fringes: loners, lunatics and criminals. Imbues them with rich humanity. His portraits are actor-playgrounds. I still recall Claudia Wilkens’ droll and hilarious mother in The Beauty Queen Of Leenane. McDonagh’s plays are uproariously comic; fun to play, fun to watch.
A Behanding In Spokane may be imperfect, but it will get you laughing and stomping your feet (be careful of the fragile Gremlin seating). Carmichael, an utterly insane mama’s boy, obsesses on an image: hillbillies, having held his arm down on the train tracks, allowing the 2:19 to sever his hand, use the now-detached appendage to wave bye-bye. 27 years later Carmichael is still searching for the hand (and, secondarily, for the hillbillies). Why? Your guess is as good as mine, but when feckless pot-dealers Marilyn and Toby try to fob off a hand nicked from the local natural history museum (looking for the $500 reward), Carmichael cuffs them to the radiator and covers them with gasoline. Then he lights a candle and disappears. Mervyn, the sly, compellingly repellent hotel clerk, oozes into the room. Hilarious.
At this point, as an exalted Drama Critic, I should mention the swiss cheesy plot, the erratic structure, the long and static scenes, the overuse of past tense material. But, really, who cares. I had a terrific time at A Behanding, and so will you.
The performances are winning. As Carmichael, David Tufford combines energy, racist nastiness, and frightening madness. He prowls and swaggers and struts. Tufford is still growing into this part; he offers a rich performance which will only become richer. As Toby, Brian J. Evans grew on me. He plays a young man thrust into a dangerous situation. All he knows is that he wants desperately to escape, and save his sweet, energy-providing, but not greatly intelligent girlfriend (in a lovely turn by Sara Marsh) from the Carmichael’s evil clutches.
Then there is the ineffable and incomparable work of Luverne Seifert as Mervyn. Greasy, fey, disheveled, with a delightfully devious smile, I believed every unbelievable thing that came out of his mouth: that he’s addicted to meth; that he adores the sound of gunfire; that Toby burned him a dope deal; that he holds forth at the fleabag hotel as part of a work-release deal. Carmichael’s murderous hand-obsession is the most interesting thing Marvyn has ever encountered. If A Behanding In Spokane has a flaw it’s that Seifert steals every scene he’s in.
Great credit is due director Matt Sciple for eliciting good performances and for keeping the play rollicking along.
I should mention that A Behanding contains raw language: the f-word and the n-word fly freely. This didn’t bother me, but be forewarned.
Finally, be also aware that we are in the midst, this festive season, of a Martin McDonagh festival: his The Cripple Of Inishmaan opens tonight (Dec 1) at Nimbus Theatre.
Recommended – especially if you, like me, are sick unto death of happy happy holiday fare.
For more information about John Olive, please visit his website.