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The Lieutenant of Inishmore

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Believe it or not, the season's most vicious bloodbath didn't occur the morning after In My Life opened. It's actually happening at the Atlantic Theatre Company, where Martin McDonagh's wicked and wonderful The Lieutenant of Inishmore is splattering the stage, the set, and the characters with more red than is seen on most U.S. electoral maps.

Yes, the faint of heart and the weak of stomach might wish to stay away. If you can't handle the sights of people having their toenails removed, being blinded by BB guns, getting their brains blown out by pistols at point-blank range, or being chopped up into tiny pieces, this isn't the play for you.

But while this is a return to the vicious and violent McDonagh who stunned audiences with his celebrated Leenane trilogy, and makes his excellent The Pillowman from last season look like a pillow fight, you don't need to be a sadist to love The Lieutenant of Inishmore. You don't even need to be up on Irish politics, which factor handily into the plot. You don't even need to be a cat person.

It might even be better if you're not, as felines fall victim to murderous machinations almost as often as do humans in McDonagh's bloody two-hour satire on revolutionary brutality. It's even the death of a cat that kicks off the story: Wee Thomas, a pitch-black purrer, has unaccountably lost a fair chunk of his brain, and no one is quite sure what to do about it.

It's not just any cat. Thomas was the cherished friend of "Mad" Padraic (David Wilmot), an Irish Republican Army patriot who ran afoul of the IRA for being too extreme, and who's now formed his own splinter group. When he left his home on the isle of Inishmore some five years ago, he trusted Thomas to the care of his father, Donny (Peter Gerety). As the play begins, Donny and his neighbor Davey (Domhnall Gleeson), who might have run over the cat with his pink bicycle, are staring agape at Thomas's limp body, baffled at how to proceed.

Can they fool Padraic into thinking Thomas is really still alive? Can they find a replacement cat? If they can't locate a black one, could they coat an orange one with shoe polish to simulate Thomas's midnight fur? If the ruse fails, how will Padraic react? In any other play, these might be minor concerns; here, they're gut-busting (and gut-threatening) matters of life and death.

Gerety and Gleeson supply the most obvious comedy, which isn't to say they're not funny. Their pulse-pounding fear is palpable, their desperation all but contagious as they cycle through all the ways they might preserve the image of Thomas and their own necks (and heads and stomachs). Both actors so strategically tap into the bowels of frustrated fright, that they elicit comedy as easily as sympathy. That's no small achievement in a world that, McDonagh and director Wilson Milam keep telling us, has no use for either.

But Wilmot's more subversive still, innately evil while torturing a drug dealer who sells to children (Jeff Binder), yet fragile and innocent when faced with a Thomas who might just be sick. (That's the first of Donny and Davey's ploys, enacted over cellphone while Padraic works over the drug dealer hanging upside-down from the ceiling.) Wilmot makes Padraic a believably human monster, equally convincing as the enraged hit man who'll let no slight go unanswered as a passionate lover of his country for whom the nearest available woman, Davey's enterprising sister Mairead (Kerry Condon), isn't an appreciable obstacle.

Their union, of talents more than bodies (though frequent kisses are exchanged), is a vital centerpiece of the second act. Mairead finds her own sense of purpose in Padraic, who feels as though he's losing a part of his with Thomas, and Condon so smoothly negotiates the transition from agitated girl-next-door to agitator extraordinaire that she might be knocking your head off (almost literally) before you even notice she's in the room. It's a fine performance, if one that, like blood, takes a while to congeal.

Similarly fine are Andrew Connolly, Dashiell Eaves, and Brian D'Arcy James as Padraic's opponents, who aren't necessarily blameless for Thomas's current condition. If they're never as threatening as Padraic, which might be ideal, they provide even more complex comic relief: Their first scene is consumed with arguments not just about Padraic, but about specific statements Karl Marx or the Jesuits might or might not have made.

But Milam and his company can develop even details that tiny and apparently insignificant into audience-shaking laughter that incapacitates you just long enough for them to roll out the next atrocity. Designers Scott Pask (set), Theresa Squires (costumes), and Michael Chybowski (lights) do no less affecting work, embracing the dreariness of everyday Inishmore life so that the horrific (and hilarious) happenings seem even more shocking. Plus, they all need to survive getting drenched in blood eight times a week.

That's McDonagh's point, of course: Terrorists might have no respect for human life, and they might want to take on the world when one tiny life is snuffed out, but things always end up as a huge mess. Some would no doubt say that's a fitting lesson for our times, but McDonagh might not agree: For him, the story is usually the thing. Those for whom the play is the thing will definitely want to catch The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Some advice, though: Don't eat first. And wear red. Just in case.


The Lieutenant of Inishmore
Through April 9
Running Time: 2 hours, including one 15 minute intermission
Atlantic Theatre Company, 336 West 20th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge