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Show of hands

April 7, 2010

By Staff Reporter

“A Behanding in Spokane” by Martin McDonagh, directed By John Crowley • at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th St., NYC • Through June 6, 2010.

Technically, Martin McDonagh’s “A Behanding in Spokane” is the first play he’s ever set in the United States. However, there was another work earlier on, unproduced except for a single reading at New Dramatists, and now mostly forgotten.

McDonagh’s fables, most of them grotesque comedies, have been set in an Ireland of the playwright’s imagining — he was born and raised in London, of Irish parents. Upon retirement, the parents returned to Ireland, leaving their house in North London to McDonagh and his brother.

Nothing in the playwright’s first success, “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” or in any of the plays that followed, feels particularly authentic, in the way that almost everything in the plays of Brian Friel and Conor McPherson do.

Authenticity, Irish or otherwise, has little significance in “A Behanding in Spokane,” a dark farce in which Christopher Walken, verbal eccentricities fliying like banners in a strong wind, plays Carmichael, an isolate who lost his left hand to thugs 47 years before the play begins and has been searching for it ever since.

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Carmichael has holed up in a tacky hotel room in a town he identifies, in a phone conversation with his mother, as “Tarlington,” although he doesn’t specify the state. He has captured, or perhaps been captured by, a pair of amateurishly awkward young con artists, Toby (Anthony Mackie) and Marilyn (Zoe Kazan.)

The 90-minute play’s fourth and final character is Mervyn, the overly curious hotel clerk, an underwritten role in which the excellent Sam Rockwell is greviously wasted.

Rockwell does what he can with a brief monologue he’s given to deliver in front of the distressed, torn curtain provided by the fine scenic and costume designer, Scott Pask.

Marilyn, who is jumpy and white, and Toby, who is frightened and black, offer Carmichael a hand which obviously was once attached to the body of a dark-skinned individual, explaining that the color had changed with the passage of time.

Carmichael, who manifests certain long-entrenched racist views, isn’t buying, and for a time, it appears than he may dispatch both Marilyn and Toby, using the pistol he keeps with him, and which, in the play’s first few moments, he had already fired at the latter as he cowered in a closet.

Some aspects of the racial attitudes reflected in McDonagh’s play already seem to be proving offensive to audience members of color, and even to a journalist or two. If that weren’t enough, the playwright’s penchant for blood and violence is fully evident, like it or not.

“A Behanding in Spokane,” efficiently directed by Limerick-born John Crowley, will be on view at the Gerald Schoenfield Theatre, through June 6 only.

To judge by “A Behanding in Spokane,” McDonagh doesn’t seem to possess what might be called an outstanding ear for American speech, at least not yet. The text contains a number of awkward contractions and more than a few clumsy phrases. The audience seems to take things as they come, and the laughter at McDonagh’s play is abundant and frequent explosive.

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