Those who’ve seen a Martin McDonagh play know his depraved black humor can be absolutely hilarious, as in The Lieutenant of Inishmore, a satire that creates an absurd bloodbath in its tale of murderous revenge.
In A Behanding in Spokane, McDonagh’s first play set in the United States, the English-born son of Irish expatriates presents another story of bloody extremities. McDonagh’s well-known Leenane Trilogy and Aran Islands Trilogy were set in Galway County, Ireland, where he spent his holidays as a child.
The Lieutenant of Inishmore, part of the Aran Islands Trilogy, was a razor-sharp comedy that starred Sean Derry at the former Bang and the Clatter theater company. Now, Derry has moved on to direct McDonagh’s A Behanding in Spokane at his new theater in the Merriman Valley, None Too Fragile.
Inishmore never let you take the story too seriously. Yet it was well-written, full of irony and had a message about hypocrisy, misplaced moral indignation, and the self-perpetuating violence of terrorism.
Behanding, on the other hand (no pun intended), is nowhere near as strong a work, nor does it offer a clear message. Like Inishmore, Behanding features pathetically stupid characters, some of whom are motivated by revenge. Not one of these losers is likable, nor are they meant to be.
The threatening Carmichael has been in search of the left hand that was severed from him 37 years ago in Spokane, Wash. The search has been a lifelong obsession that apparently has led him down way too many false paths.
The tale takes place in a hotel room in an indeterminate location, where Carmichael attempts to buy a hand from youngsters Marilyn and Toby in a deal gone bad. Carmichael chains the couple to a radiator, lights a candle set in a gas can and leaves.
Of course, the couple discovers a suitcase full of bloodied, severed hands and of course, those hands end up being thrown around the stage. It’s a gross-out sight that’s not for the faint of heart.
On opening night Friday, the intermissionless performance started to lose steam in its last third.
This play alternates between the sickeningly funny and just plain sickening — the latter in the form of viciously racist dialogue. Race plays a big part in this story in ways that don’t really make sense.
A Behanding in Spokane is full of obscenities and racial epithets. As the off-kilter Carmichael, the bushy-haired, white-bearded Michael Regnier is uncomfortably frightening in his hatred. Yet his bizarre character also displays a twisted, distorted sense of dignity.
Christopher Walken played the character — who alternates between menacing his prisoners and having pseudo-normal-sounding phone conversations with his mom — on Broadway in 2010.
All of the characters are delusional in their own way, living in fantasy worlds. Carmichael thinks he will find his hand, and the doltish, weird receptionist Mervyn (Nick Yurick) fantasizes in a wacked-out soliloquy about a massacre in which he can play the hero. Yurick’s character, who appears to have a death wish, behaves erratically, applying deodorant to his feet as he negotiates with the other characters.
Kelly Strand and Brian Kenneth Armour add some levity as small-time pot dealers Marilyn and Toby, who can’t stop bickering, even in the face of death. Strand is comical in her spacey character’s pathetic attempt at seduction. Armour is a strong actor who brings the most humor to the play with his supposed tough guy who cries a lot.
McDonagh has been compared to filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, with violent, extreme and absurd storylines. My quandary is this: Is this play’s violence simply gratuitous? Is its extremism simply for entertainment shock value, a la Tarantino? If so, that’s not good enough.
McDonagh may be steering us toward this message: Everyone has hatred and prejudice inside and everyone has skeletons in his or her closet. He’s also exploring the usurious nature of many human beings: Three of his four characters would bilk anyone they could in a heartbeat.
Near the beginning, Mervyn asks repeatedly about the one-handed man, “Where’s a story like that gonna go?’’
It’s a good question that’s not adequately answered.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.