Last Night: The Alley's Behanding Is Funny When It's Not Race Baiting

English-born, Irish playwright Martin McDonagh's A Behanding in Spokane is the writer's first play set in America, and if we're to get a sense of McDonagh's impression of Americans from the play, we're all desperate, insane, racist nihilists. Also, we're really, really funny.

Last night, the play officially opened on the Alley's Neuhaus Stage, and the nearly-packed theater was peppered with the usual opening-night suspects: Patricia Hubbard (the Alley's Hubbard Stage namesake), Lynn Wyatt, Charles Krohn and a smattering of Alley company actors, and of course the press, made to carry big red press-pack folders for easy recognition.

By the time the audience performed its requisite opening-night standing ovation, it was a 90-minute romp of gruesome slapstick and gallows humor, plus a giant helping of inexplicable race baiting.

McDonagh's main character, Carmichael, is holed up in a seedy Ohio hotel, on the hunt for his missing hand, which was brutally amputated against his will 27 years earlier. Two hoods, a young black man and his white girlfriend, have promised to deliver Carmichael's hand for $500. Of course, it's a scam. The kids get handcuffed to a radiator while Carmichael goes on a ridiculously futile search for the appendage.

But while he's got the kids cornered in the room, Carmichael unleashes racial slur after slur against the young man, Toby. There are countless uses of the n-word, as well as homosexual slurs. Not that we're prudes; it's just that the excessiveness eventually morphs into something utterly unfunny (not that it was funny to begin with), and that's because Toby provides Carmichael with exactly the stereotype he wants to denigrate. Toby is a crying, whining, timid, suppliant, drug-dealing thief. Sean-Michael Bowles does his duty as Toby, though it's kind of sad to watch. He and Emily Neves as Marilyn both feel forced and all over the map in characterization. That's McDonagh's fault: He's written Marilyn as both a blond ditz and a smart negotiator. Doesn't work.

Chris Hutchison steals the show as Mervyn, the hotel receptionist. He carves out the weirdest character of the play--a lost, amoral psychopath with a hero complex. His mid-show monologue is hilarious--when McDonagh explores America's fascination with fame and violence, he's right on target.

Andrew Weems is a fine performer, but he's completely miscast as Carmichael. Despite the character's brazen racism and homophobia, Alley veteran James Black directs Weems as if we're supposed to root for him because of the intense wrongdoing he's suffered at the hands of sadistic "hillbillies." This tactic softens McDonagh's tone (yes, it's possible) and purpose for the character, and wrongly situates Carmichael as a kind of male version of "The Bride" in Kill Bill. Like Uma, Weems plays Carmichael with an earnest sadism bent on revenge (or something like it). Imagine Samuel L. Jackson playing the Michael Madsen role in Reservoir Dogs, and you're pretty close. (Behanding even features an obvious homage to Tarantino's first film. Hint: it involves a can of gasoline.) But this character feels under-realized under Black's direction.

But despite the motherfucking outrageousness of McDonagh's motherfucking words, and the over-the-top violence, there's no operatic emotional payoff. Behanding trails off into insignificance like a tossed-off cuss word.

It all leaves us wondering, "Who is Martin McDonagh?" Or at least "Who does he think he is?" He's no Tarantino.

A Behanding in Spokane runs September 1 through September 26 on the Neuhaus Stage at the Alley. Ticket information is avalable at www.alleytheatre.org, at the Alley box office, 615 Texas Avenue, or by calling 713-220-5700.

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