Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 4, 2010
A Behanding in Spokane by Martin McDonagh. Directed by John Crowley. Scenic and costume design by Scott Pask. Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt. Original music & sound design by David Van Tieghem. Cast: Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell, Anthony Mackie, Zoe Kazan.
In other words, the creators are hoping for - wait for it! - a hand. You can leave your tomatoes at home, because they get it - and you won’t much mind giving it - at A Behanding in Spokane.
What you won’t get in return is vintage McDonagh. This is not necessarily a bad thing, by the way. The same playwright who’s scribed works as gleefully and violently diverse as A Skull in Connemara, The Cripple of Inishmaan, The Pillowman, and The Lieutenant of Inishmore, as well as the films Six Shooter (for which he won an Oscar) and In Bruges (for which he should have) doesn’t like being constrained by anything other than his own dark imagination. Here, he’s forgone any pretense of the serious-minded drama that’s grounded his previous plays, and gone straightly and entirely for the comedy. It’s a new language for him, but he’s fluent in it anyway.
This is not to say, of course, that the tension, irony, and dismemberments (both threatened and actual) haven’t come along for the ride. As the title suggests, they certainly have: Carmichael (Christopher Walken) has spent the last 47 years searching for the hand he claims a group of hooligans caused to be severed by a train in Eastern Washington, and believes he’s finally tracked it down. Holing up in a motel, he meets with the ostensible owners, Marilyn (Zoe Kazan) and Toby (Anthony Mackie), while dodging the disturbed intrusions of the motel’s receptionist-operator Mervyn (Sam Rockwell) and attempting to reacquire what’s leftfully his.
Director John Crowley, who so successfully helmed The Pillowman on Broadway in 2005, has honed every nuance to its sharpest, from Scott Pask’s set (which also includes the almost pathologically dingy motel room) and Brian MacDevitt’s sarcastic lights to the performances themselves.
Walken projects profuse psychotic malice as Carmichael; it’s a typically Walken role, but no one does them better. His low-key-brutal delivery, however, can make some of his lines difficult to hear. Rockwell’s deadpan approach makes a fitting contrast for Walken’s dead-man style, and is especially effective in a before-the-curtain monologue that sounds like some guy rambling his life story over a beer at a bar (and I mean that in the best possible way). Mackie’s bulging-eyed, frantic Toby is a winner, with the actor channeling his fear into the physical release the other men don’t allow. Only Kazan doesn’t quite make the most of her trailer-park sexpot role, vacillating between total genius and total dimwit in a way that makes Marilyn seem more inconclusive than calculating.
Sadly, that’s also a bit of a problem with the play itself. When McDonagh focuses intently on telling a tale, there are few who do it better and with less ornamentation. But there’s so little story here that attempts to jumpstart the remaining wisps of plot feel somewhat halfhearted. You sense that McDonagh wants to jazz up his usual format, even though he can’t bear abandoning it entirely, and that leads to a somewhat bipolar 90 minutes. The evening as a whole still completely works, but it unfolds without most of the roller-coaster highs of laughter or visual audacity that characterize the playwright at his best.
It’s perhaps best, then, to approach A Behanding in Spokane as McDonagh’s most “experimental” work, a blending and occasional confusion of concepts that don’t quite solidify in the ways you expect them to. This may be intentional: Certain moments, such as the action grinding to a halt at its fiercest moment so Carmichael can field a phone call from his mother, are so awkwardly implemented they’re downright brilliant - but this doesn’t make them less a shock to the system.
No one likes playing with plays more than McDonagh does, so an occasional missed step (as opposed to a misstep) is forgivable, the cost of doing business. You never feel like you’re being let down. But if you have indeed ever found yourself wondering what one hand clapping sounds like, you shouldn’t be surprised to hear it at this play - in more ways than one.