Martin McDonagh’s A Behanding in Spokane is both like and unlike the work that made the British-Irish playwright one of the hottest authors in the English-speaking theater world.
Like his earlier The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Lieutenant of Inishmore and other plays, A Behanding in Spokane is a dark comedy full of quirky, memorable characters.
But unlike those other McDonagh plays, Behanding is set in the United States, not Ireland (or, as with The Pillowman, in a menacing totalitarian state). And despite the familiar touchstones of violence or the threat of it, plus occasional passages of engaging storytelling, Behanding is McDonagh’s slightest play yet.
Kicking off the new season at GableStage, Behanding (yes, “behanding,” not “beheading”) spins the tale of an obsessive wanderer hell bent on recovering the left hand he lost in a grisly attack 47 years earlier. Never mind that Carmichael (Dennis Creaghan) has a snowball’s chance of finding the hand, or that if he did, it would be little more than a pile of bones. In McDonagh’s world, nuttiness trumps logic.
Behanding, which had a Broadway run last season, requires a director and cast willing to commit full out to its craziness and deliberately unsettling language. Director Joseph Adler, who won Carbonell Awards for his earlier productions of The Pillowman and The Lieutenant of Inishmore, really gets McDonagh’s work, and his breezy staging goes a long way toward sustaining interest in a story that ultimately doesn’t amount to much.
On set designer Lyle Baskin’s dead-on version of a seedy hotel room, Adler’s cast works hard at pulling off McDonagh’s blend of menace, fear and comedy — and, to a person, the actors succeed.
As Carmichael, Creaghan looks at least as unkempt as that hotel room (thanks in part to costume designer Ellis Tillman), and he’s adept at keeping the audience on edge. Will he fire that gun this time? Will he torch the hotel room — and, by extension, the theater in which we’re sitting? Creaghan is persuasive enough when it comes to suspension of disbelief that you’ll wish you had a fire extinguisher handy.
Carmichael’s victims are a pair of con-artist lovers whose plot to victimize the one-handed man gets flipped before the play begins. When the lights go up, Toby (Marckenson Charles) is already bound and gagged, awaiting the return of his frightened girlfriend Marilyn (Jackie Rivera), who has gone to fetch Carmichael’s alleged left hand.
Charles and Rivera are terrific young actors who make you feel for this pair of dim-bulb hustlers — Charles especially, as Toby is a black weed dealer who becomes the repeated target of Carmichael’s vile racist trash talk.
The fourth player in McDonagh’s hotel room showdown is Mervyn (Erik Fabregat), a front-desk clerk who longs for something exciting to shake up his dead-end world and who, thanks to Carmichael, gets his wish. Fabregat, Mervyn and McDonagh are made for each other, and this always-reliable actor turns in yet another sly, funny performance. Too bad A Behanding in Spokane doesn’t give him, his cast mates and Adler more to work with.