NEW YORK — On the unforgiving island of Inishmaan, off Ireland's west coast, right by the Old Sod but peering out enviously in the direction of the Yanks, a young fella named Billy, who happens to suffer from a physical deformity, is not just Billy. Not in 1934. His moniker, good for all uses, is Crippled Billy, as in, "Hi, Crippled Billy." When not in the room, he's "the crippled feller."
Daniel Radcliffe — whose global celebrity wholly disappears inside this much-maligned character in Michael Grandage's truly formidable London-to-Broadway revival of Martin McDonagh's 1996 play, "The Cripple of Inishmaan" — delivers a Billy with one heck of a limp, a body-twisting contortion that, when in motion, is quite the theatrical thing to behold.
It's a fine match for the unabashed theatricality of what is partly a closely observed comedy of manners about life in this remote spot — where news is hand-delivered and the grocery store specializes in canned peas — but mostly a sardonic satire of the long-established dynamics of the Irish-U.S. relationship, wherein an American film crew comes looking for local color, and the wildly imperfect but authentic Irish locals fall all over themselves for a glimpse of bland celebrity. Plus ca change …
Several times in this play, McDonagh sacrifices believability on the altar of theatrical expediency — no more obviously than when crippled Billy is whisked away from the Beckettian pair of corner-shop aunts who have raised him (they are played, hilariously but also credibly, by Ingrid Craigie and Gillian Hanna) and sent for a screen test in Hollywood without even packing a bag or saying bye-bye. Grandage understands that a play untroubled by such rule keeping offers a kind of license for outre character study, which this cast delivers with unfettered joy (for them and for us). But — and this is what makes this particular production of "Inishmaan" so remarkable — Grandage also finds real poignancy in a work that, in other productions, including a recent touring one by the Druid Theatre of Ireland, has felt coldly gothic or merely like black farce.
Not here. This one has a heart. Indeed, I have never seen a production of a McDonagh play that so captures the beauty of Ireland prior to World War II and the advent of television, when its remoteness still was pure and absolute. Many of the vistas in Christopher Oram's craggy setting — which doesn't offer a romantic gloss so much as find the beauty in close, quotidian interaction — are breathtaking, in a small way. And it's in that paradox — heartfelt satire — that this production, while wickedly funny, gains its weight, gravitas and sense of completeness.
Well, that and the acting. Radcliffe, a man of slight build, not only grabs onto this role physically, he understands that what interests us most about Billy is how he reacts when people add that "crippled" to his name. Show too much pain and you're off base. Even a crippled fellow can still get a kiss from the live-wire Helen (the ebullient Sarah Greene) and certainly will make Johnnypateenmike's news on regular basis (he's played with real joy by Pat Shortt). Show no pain at all and everything is a wash of black farce. Radcliffe rightly lands slap in the middle — his Billy has learned to go along to get along, but he still winces with quiet pain, mostly inside.
Of the three Radcliffe performances I've seen on Broadway (the others were in "Equus" and "How to Succeed"), this by far is the best. It really breathes as it hobbles along, and yet it's never showy nor overly optimistic. Radcliffe, who reveals chops here I've never seen on stage nor screen, is surrounded by superb character work throughout, including the killer likes of June Watson and Gary Lilburn. I wish Greene's bruising charmer of a Helen showed just a touch more longing for remove, but these performances are otherwise fulsome emotional creations indeed. You can see tears behind the eyes of the most seemingly impervious characters, with their funny, faux-period banter filtered through McDonagh's caustic, love-hate relationship with the cloistered world that still was around, albeit changing fast, in his youth. These days, it's nearly gone altogether: a shame for the romantics, but not for the Billys of Ireland.
"The Cripple of Inishmaan" plays at the Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St., New York.Go to crippleofinishmaan.com