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Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s newest play, “A Behanding in Spokane” is his first set in America. It’s still one of his characteristic black comedies – a label that means it okay to laugh at others’ pain and suffering – but it comes across the pond and centers on a one-handed man. The sweaty-headed Carmichael lost his hand to a bunch of hillbillies in Spokane, Washington, and he’s been searching for it for the past 27 years. The hillbillies he long ago found and disposed of, but his hand still eludes him. Profile’s production of the play, similarly, seems to be searching for something; it has many of the essential parts – a smart head and occasional heart – but it’s missing something I can’t quite put my finger on.
The unfinished business of Carmichael (broodingly played by Darell W. Cox) brings him to a decrepit hotel for a promised transaction. An enterprising young couple (Levenix Riddle and Sara Greenfield tell Carmichael they have his hand, but they underestimate his intolerance for trickery and his capacity for violence. The hand-off plays out in real-time, with the young couple disagreeing on the con and ending up playing a twisted carnival game for their lives – tossing severed hands at a candle that is burning down to a bucket of gasoline. Caught in the middle is a delightfully naïve, but still flawed, receptionist, given a playful characterization by Eric Burgher.
At its core, A Behanding in Spokane is about justice and how it plays out between these four individuals – a man seeking revenge disregards the law, a young couple unethically try to swindle him, and a receptionist serves as an accidental judge with his own grievances. In the plot-heavy piece, McDonagh digs into how a grudge can consume and destroy a life, leaving it more mangled and blackened than a 27-year-old severed hand. But from a man obsessed with location (his play titles almost always include a geography: The Beauty Queen of Leenane, A Skull in Connemara, The Cripple of Inishmaan, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Banshees of Inisheer), the placement of the play in America is not accidental. In his black comedy, he features a black character (the young Toby) and satirizes political correctness and confronts America’s racist past. Toby’s girlfriend Marilyn reprimands her captor, while he wields a gun, for his homophobia and use of racial epithets. Her boyfriend is a bit more practical about the situation. In short, he doesn’t mind being called a name if it means he doesn’t get murdered.
The relationship between this pair is what makes the piece lose its early momentum. Once Carmichael leaves the pair alone, the piece dips in intensity, focusing on the yelling of two young folks. Their screams and banter become a bit monotonous, although I/m not sure exactly I would react in the face of impending death. The layout of the Profiles Theatre storefront puts the audience close to the actors and on both sides of the stage. The effect is Brechtian – you’re never lost in the dream of a story, you’re constantly aware that the other half of the audience– and intimate – you’re close to the characters, which can be frightening with a villain like Carmichael or disappointing when a moment isn’t properly directed.
McDonagh’s repetitive dialogue, rhythmically perfected by a talented cast of 4, is a strong source of humor, but occasionally Snyder has directed his cast toward pathos rather than the laughs the author intended. In the face of such dark and tragic comedy, sometimes the only response is laughter – aided by the fact that these are fictional characters in an imagined situation. Even still, McDonagh’s impression of the United States are as dark as his comedy – we’re a violent, homophobic, racist people that have overcorrected by becoming PC and sensitive to the point of nonsense. How far off is his assessment? I had never heard of Spokane, Washington until McDonagh’s play, but I recently received an e-mail which referenced the city three times. In a list of recent LGBT hate crimes were the following:
– September 21, 2011: Steve Pfefferle, 38, was choked with a rope and repeatedly struck with a piece of metal by a man in Spokane, Washington after leaving Dempsey’s, a local gay bar.
– September 28, 2011: Michael Jepsen, 45, was hit, pushed, and called a “faggot” by a group of people outside Irv’s, a bar in Spokane, Washington.
– October 7, 2011: Danny Hawkins, a gay rights advocate, was asked if he was gay before being beaten by an unnamed man in Spokane, Washington after leaving a local gay bar.
And that’s nothing to laugh about.