The lights come up on a ratty hotel room with yellowed transom, smudgy walls and broken Venetian blinds. In Kevin Rigdon's atmospheric set design, we can smell the stains. On the rumpled bed sits Carmichael (Andrew Weems), a grizzled, longhaired codger with skin the color of ash. He wears a duster like a Clint Eastwood avenger in a Sergio Leone western, but he has the determined air of a biblical prophet. Then you notice the stump of his left arm. He has no left hand.
The closet doors rattle with a muffled cry coming from inside. The man looks over with annoyed exasperation. The doors rattle again with louder cries. Without emotion, the man reaches into his coat and pulls out a large pistol. We get the feeling he's done this before. He goes to the closet, opens the door, aims and fires. The cries stop. Calm and cool, the old man closes the closet, goes back to the bed, takes the phone, nestling it in his gimpy arm, and dials. A pause. "Hi, Mom," he cheerfully says. Welcome to the world of Martin McDonagh and his new play A Behanding in Spokane.
Contemporary, cutting-edge comedy has taken a sharp turn since those halcyon days of Danny Kaye with his tongue-twisting "Tchaikovsky" routine, or those smart-ass Hope and Crosby road pictures from the '40s where every situation dripped with irony and the old pros talked directly to the audience. Even yesteryear's classic Neil Simon comedies kept us laughing with an out-of-breath telephone repairman climbing up six flights of a Manhattan brownstone, just to watch him catch his breath. Kiss those days goodbye.
Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. 713-228-8421.
A Behanding in Spokane
Through September 26. $21-$55.
If you're unaware of the prestigious McDonagh, he burst onto stage with The Beauty Queen of Leenane (1996), a searing Irish mother/daughter slug-fest; followed by The Lieutenant of Inishmore (2001), a blackest-of-black revenge comedy with the characters, and set, awash with blood; and The Pillowman (2003), a creepy, Brothers Grimm fable full of nightmare and sadism. All have been radiantly produced by the Alley. Maybe you caught his movie debut In Bruges (2008), starring Colin Farrell and Ralph Fiennes, for which he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
McDonagh celebrates losers and lowlifes, placing them in impossible, cartoony situations that ramp up the irony along with the gore. Civilization doesn't receive high marks. And blood, and body parts, are as adored by McDonagh as his forebears, those authors at the Grand Guignol. He's the theater's Quentin Tarantino. In love with the art's magic and the freedom it gives him, he's a master of structure, and his timing (of jokes, situations, revelations) is impeccable. He knows the exact moment to sew up a thread woven scenes ago. Or when to fire a gun, or light a match over an open can of gasoline.
Tweaking political correctness, his characters spout a nonstop barrage of fag jokes, the N-word and F-bombs. (A few audience members walked out; their departure might have been for reasons other than taste, but they never returned.) For all the salt, Behanding is funny — exceedingly so during the first half. Under James Black's dark yet humorous direction, the play dances while it keeps a rollercoaster pace.
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An obsessed, psychotic racist, Carmichael's been on a quest for his missing hand, severed 27 years ago. Toby and girlfriend Marilyn (Sean-Michael Bowles and Emily Neves), two hapless weed dealers, unwisely attempt a con by selling him a severed hand they've stolen from the museum. Carmichael is nobody's fool, and when he realizes he's been had, he goes volcanic. Toby and Marilyn, both handcuffed to the radiator, await incineration. When Toby unfortunately insults Carmichael's beloved mother, Carmichael lights the match.
Into this loopy mix, McDonagh throws his ace: Mervyn, the hotel's "reception guy" (Chris Hutchison). He's the most finely drawn of the play's quartet and gives its finest monologue, a non sequitur rant/prayer for salvation, love and bravery that must be heard to be believed. Gibbons, high school shootings and medals for saving lesbians get mixed up in Mervyn's untamable, psycho mind; he just wants something to happen so he can be a hero. Hutchison, so memorable a few seasons ago as McDonagh's Lieutenant, lets go completely in this role and delivers a bellwether performance that'll be hard to match this subsequent season.
Weems, so beautifully poignant as last season's indomitable Herzstark in Kenneth Lin's Intelligence Slave, delivers the power of Carmichael, but misses his weirdness. He can thunder and threaten, but there's no creepiness, except costume and unruly hair. He's dramatic but not terrifyingly bizarre. And the play loses steam through Toby and Marilyn, two weak characters who stay on the play's surface. They bicker like an old married couple, but it never goes anywhere. It's funny, but the sameness wears us down. Bowles and Neves, however, are fresh and inventively daffy as the remarkably inept duo who get much more than they bargained for when they meet Carmichael.
Eventually, the novelty of the plot wears thin, the relentless blue language goes limp and the buzz that so effortlessly wafts through the early scenes disperses. The loopy fun can't sustain itself, and McDonagh's patented edge goes dull. Up till then, it's one hell of a ride. Then again, we'll always have Mervyn — and his gibbon.