Irish playwright Martin McDonagh wrote his series of violent, dark comedies — The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Lonesome West, A Skull in Connemara, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Cripple of Inishmaan and The Pillowman — in a fit of inspiration mostly in 1996 and ’97, and bleeding into 2003. Since then, he’s concentrated on film work, winning an Oscar for live action short (Six Shooter), a nomination for writing In Bruges and his putting out his latest, 7 Psychopaths.
Notice a pattern, there?
His latest entree into the theater world is also his only American-set play: A Behanding in Spokane, currently at the Bryant Hall space in the Kalita Humphreys complex, courtesy of Second Thought Theatre. In its tense, brooding, hilariously strange 85 minutes, he uses the “N” word as if he thinks he’s Tarantino, sprays the audience with severed body parts and chains a nubile young woman and a black man up as if this was some barely-legal, racist snuff film.
Well, not exactly great; McDonagh has something going on in his mind, here. Spokane isn’t really darker than his other plays — after you touch on graverobbing, matricide and child molestation, “dark” is a relative concept — but it is slightly more outrageous in ways that don’t always make sense. It’s a true absurdist romp, the kind where characters “forget” to call the cops even though a building is about to explode, or where people weave elaborate lies destined to cost them dearly when inevitably discovered. The play undercuts traditional ideas of drama almost immediately: Chekhov opined that if you introduce a gun in Act 1, you’d better shoot it by Act 3. McDonagh moves that up exponentially, showing the gun in the opening seconds and firing it moments later. It keeps you in a perpetual state of discomfort. (I wonder whether McDonagh was in the middle of a break-up when he wrote it; it’s pregnant with woe and despair and pointlessness, with an ironic twist that borders on the unfathomable. For me, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? was always the best example of that, but this is a close second.)
The four-actor cast is tighter than a pair of virgins on their wedding night. Van Quattro plays Mr. Carmichael, a middle-aged man with a stump at the end of his left arm. He’s spent 27 years like the hero of a folk song, scouring the earth, trying to track down the hand that was lopped from his wrist as a teenager … and punishing anyone who tries to help but fails. Two lowly pot peddlers (Barrett Nash, David Jeremiah) try to scam him with their shriveled hand, while a creepy hotel clerk (Drew Wall) pops in occasionally, seemingly unperturbed by the disturbing violence he encounters, as if he’s walking through a David Lynch film.
Everyone is excellent, but Wall — here, with Connemara in Addison a few years back and at Kitchen Dog’s Leenane last fall — has become North Texas’ premiere interpreter of McDonagh’s “off” characters, the kind of social detritus few people care to imagine, not to say embody. With his ragged pencil ‘stache and quirky speech pattern, Wall seems like a young Steve Buscemi: Bug-eyed, squirrelly and utterly captivating.
Quattro, Jeremiah and Nash are themselves some of the more exciting actors to emerge on local stages in recent years, and the show’s first-time director, Alex Organ, is also an acting standout. What is it like seeing that quintet team up and kick off 2013 so persuasively? Well, let’s just say I’ll be waiting for the sequel, A Defooting Near Tacoma. You know it’s comin’.
A Behanding in Spokane runs through Jan. 26.