Martin McDonagh is having a great month
Last weekend at least, the writer had the best movie in town and the best play as well. The film
(now in theaters) was written and directed by McDonagh but is nevertheless the best Quentin Tarantino picture since
The play is
A Behanding in Spokane
, written by McDonagh but directed by Howard Berkowitz for the Fells Point Corner Theatre. The play has a smaller budget than the movie-in the same sense that a molecule is smaller than a planet-but it has the same spirit. In both cases, small-time crooks find themselves in absurd situations and respond with very smart dialogue and very stupid decisions.
McDonagh burst onto his native London's theater scene with five plays, all written between 1994 and 1996, and all set on Ireland's west coast, where his family came from. Two of those five have had successful Baltimore productions:
The Cripple of Inishmaan
at the Everyman Theatre in 2006 and
A Skull in Connemara
at Center Stage earlier this year. After one more non-Irish play (2003's
), he turned his attention to the cinema, writing and directing award-winning short
in 2006 and his first feature,
, in 2008. When he returned to the stage, it was not in London but in New York that he debuted
A Behanding in Spokane
in 2010. The star of that production, Christopher Walken, went on to star in
Walken played Carmichael, a man with only one hand sitting on the edge of a bed in a crummy hotel. At the Fells Point Theatre, the bulkier, more weathered Jeff Murray plays Carmichael with a deeper, raspier voice than Walken but with the same creepy air of menace lurking beneath a thin veneer of calm. He hears a muffled sound coming from the closet, opens the door, and fires a pistol into the closet. The sound ceases. With some difficulty, Carmichael uses his one remaining hand to pick up the motel phone, dial his mother's number in Spokane, and leave her a devoted son's message.
He is interrupted by the hotel's receptionist, Mervyn (Eric C. Stein), a bald kid in a white shirt and red vest with a bird's beak for a nose and a squawking voice to match. He asks about the gunshot and isn't put off by Carmichael's feeble lies. Mervyn vows to come back, and as soon as he leaves, Marilyn (Emily Sucher), a pretty young blonde, arrives with a package wrapped in brown paper and duct tape. She refuses to hand it over till she sees her boyfriend, Toby (Mike Smith), a husky African-American kid who emerges from the closet, stunned by Carmichael's warning shot but still alive.
Marilyn and Toby insist that Carmichael's left hand is inside the package, so please, give them the promised $500. But no-first Carmichael wants to tell the story of how he lost the hand as child in Spokane. This is one of those profanely eloquent, implausible-but-not-impossible monologues that McDonagh is so good at. But when Carmichael rips open the package, he finds a black person's hand.
Marilyn tries to convince him that it's really his hand, only darkened with age, but Carmichael doesn't believe her. He does, however, buy the story that his real hand is back at Toby's house. So the one-handed man handcuffs Marilyn and Toby, begins the countdown on a homemade bomb, and disappears down the fire escape. The imprisoned couple, inept drug dealers by trade, think they're rescued when Mervyn reappears, but he turns out to be a customer they once cheated.
It's a great set-up: one room, four characters, a bomb, a pistol, and multiple severed hands. The suspense keeps the narrative moving even through all the talking, but the talking is wonderful-despite the racist and sexist slurs that are slung back and forth. If you've ever wondered what people are thinking when they make terrible decisions, McDonagh lets you hear the faulty logic inside their heads because he's made all four of these characters hyper-articulate.
The Fells Point cast does a great job with this dialogue. Murray is a smoldering volcano as Carmichael; Smith is a well-intentioned, almost rational loser as Toby, and Sucher is unfiltered id as Marilyn. But the standout is Stein. With his irritating whine and self-absorbed yammering, you understand why Mervyn is such a loner, but through his desperate yearning for acceptance by the other three, you also understand the cost of his loneliness.
To say that this production is low-budget, however, is understating the case. There's no attempt to make Carmichael's amputated left arm or the severed hands that might fit it seem the least bit realistic. Even the motel phone isn't credible. The nonprofessional cast has occasional glitches as well, but they do provide the kind of demented energy needed to make McDonagh's dialogue come alive. And that's more satisfying than a polished production of a safe, well-crafted play.