Theatre Review by David Hurst - February 5, 2018
After winning four Golden Globes, three SAG Awards and seven Oscar nominations for his emotionally charged revenge film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Martin McDonagh is unquestionably the toast of Hollywood. But theatre lovers know McDonagh foremost from a string of spectacular and shocking plays including The Leenane Trilogy, The Aran Island Trilogy, The Pillowman and, most recently, A Behanding in Spokane which was produced on Broadway in 2010. Thankfully, the "McDonagh drought" has ended thanks to the Atlantic Theater Company's presentation of The Royal Court Theatre's production of Hangmen, a brilliant, new black comedy that won both the Critics' Circle Theatre Award (2015) and the Laurence Olivier Award (2016) for Best Play. Undoubtedly it will rack up accolades on this side of the pond as well, and a Broadway transfer seems inevitable since it's the hottest ticket in town.
Mark Addy and Johnny Flynn
Photo by Ahron R Foster
It's appropriate the Atlantic should be the theatre to herald the return of McDonagh as it was the Atlantic who gave us McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane twenty years ago, thus launching the playwright's reputation and success here in America. His first play set in England, Hangmen finds McDonagh in spine-tingling form telling a story of resentment and retribution set at the moment England abolished hanging in 1965. The play opens with a horrifying yet comic prologue two years earlier in 1963 with the execution of James Hennessy (a hilarious Gilles Geary), not by England's most famous hangman, Albert Pierrepoint (a terrific Maxwell Caulfield), but by its second most famous hangman, Harry Wade (the magnificent Mark Addy) and his fussy assistant, Syd (a priceless Reece Shearsmith). Hennessy proclaims his innocence and laments he's not being hanged by the now retired Pierrepoint causing Wade to fume and bristle at the insult before demanding breakfast after carrying out his duty.
That questionable execution of Hennessy and Harry's preoccupation with Pierrepoint's fame hang over the rest of Hangmen as the action jumps forward to 1965 in Oldham where Harry, now a local celebrity, owns a rundown pub with his wife Alice (the superb Sally Rogers) and moody daughter Shirley (a heartbreaking Gaby French). As Harry pontificates on the end of his hanging career to a local reporter, Clegg (Owen Campbell), a group of disheveled, local regulars hold court in the pub, including: Bill (Richard Hollis), Charlie (Billy Carter), and Arthur (John Horton) along with Inspector Fry (David Lansbury). In the midst of their banter, a sinister stranger from London, Peter Mooney (the extraordinary Johnny Flynn in a star-making role), walks in and sends Hangmen into overdrive. Who is Mooney and why is he there? Is he seeking lodging? Is he seeking revenge? It's McDonagh so expect the unexpected.
Gaby French and Sally Rogers
Photo by Ahron R Foster
Mooney, played with chilling insolence by Johnny Flynn (who starred in the original production, along with Reece Shearsmith and Sally Rogers), could have stepped out of a Harold Pinter or Joe Orton play. He's one of the creepiest characters we've seen onstage in years and his scene with Harry's daughter, Shirley, is one of the most disturbing in recent memory. The production's director remains Matthew Dunster, who's managed a seamless transition to the Atlantic's multi-national cast, weaves a spell of loony comedy with genuinely frightening violence to create a gallows-humor production that could only have come from the pen of McDonagh. Fortunately, Hangmen's impeccable design team remains intact from its Royal Court and West End runs with the insightful lighting of Joshua Carr, and the amazing scenic and costume designs of Anna Fleischle who won Best Design awards from the Evening Standard Theatre Awards, the Critics' Choice Theatre Awards and the Laurence Olivier Awards.
Through March 7
Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Ovation