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The Cripple of Inishmaan

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Aaron Monaghan and Kerry Condon.
Photo by Keith Pattison.

Schadenfreude's unbecoming, don't laugh at physically challenged people... We know all that, but sometimes there's virtue in adversity, and taking pleasure from pain isn't always a bad thing. Depending on your circumstances, it might be the only way to survive. And if you're Martin McDonagh, or merely in the audience at one of his plays, you might even squeeze legitimate meaning from otherwise bad behavior.

McDonagh's play The Cripple of Inishmaan, which the Atlantic Theater Company is presenting in a coproduction with the Druid Theatre Company of Galway, Ireland, is an excellent example. At first it might appear exploitative, playing on your sympathies for its troubled title character, "Cripple" Billy Claven. But dig deeper into the life of Billy and his neighbors on the Aran Island of Inishmaan and you'll find a hilarious, dark little drama that needs no help at all to be a scheming, compelling joy.

In terms of personality, it's not too far removed from McDonagh's most recent plays to hit New York, The Pillowman and The Lieutenant of Inishmore. An atmosphere that wobbles between brooding and comic, off-center characters recognizable as both bystanders and as victims of themselves, the sense that destruction always lies just beyond the stage - all are richly present in director Garry Hynes's production, suggesting a communion with McDonagh's antiestablishment weird style that reportedly didn't jell when this play was first produced in New York at The Public 10 years ago.

Yet if The Cripple of Inishmaan doesn't spin a yarn as self-tangling as The Pillowman's does, and if its greater lessons are virtually nonexistent compared to those in The Lieutenant of Inishmore, it's still an amazing little play that thrives on dreams sought, denied, and lost. At the center of this swirling vortex of foggy hopes in 1934 Ireland is Billy (Aaron Monaghan): His left arm and leg are twisted into uselessness, but his dreams of personal success, learning more about himself, and women - are as straight and true as for any young man.

When the American filmmaker Robert Flaherty comes to Inishmaan to shoot his, ahem, "documentary" The Man of Aran, every inhabitant yearns to be rescued from a life of drudgery, but it's only Billy who is. Leaving behind questions about his real family (why did they abandon him shortly after birth?), the two elderly sisters Kate and Eileen (Marie Mullen and Dearbhla Molloy) who've made themselves his surrogate mothers, and the colorful collection of young and old people alike who populate his Inishmaan sphere, Billy pursues success in the United States - only to learn it's not all scented smoke and stardust.

David Pearse, Marie Mullen, and Dearbhla Molloy.
Photo by Keith Pattison.

Such a synopsis doesn't begin to disrupt the well-ordered regimentation of McDonagh's web-spinning. The other characters flesh out this work-a-daze world as much by what they say and do as by the squandered freedom they represent. The itinerant Johnnypateenmike (David Pearse), for example, ekes out his meager living peddling traditionally irrelevant gossip to any interested buyer. The dock worker Babbybobby (Andrew Connolly) is close friends with Billy, which may not be as safe as it first sounds. The young brother and sister Bartley and Helen (Kerry Condon and Laurence Kinlan) represent the anonymous normalcy Billy both aspires to and is desperate to escape.

This of course leaves out dozens of delicious details: the egg man who's frequently eggless, the alarmingly poor selection of candy at the shop the two sisters run, the woozy battle of wills between Johnnypateenmike and his nonagenarian mother (Patricia O'Connell) who's spent many decades trying to drink herself to death. These are not quaintly contrived attempts at establishing local color, but crucial anchors in reality of the world Flaherty is about to fictionalize. This life may be more worthy of accurate preservation than it is the acceptable lies of show business - if anyone owns up to his or her existence.

Hynes realizes this in her staging, which embraces the contented laziness of a life snugly lived. The slickest elements of her production are the frontier-styled sets (by Francis O'Connor, also the costume designer), and the imposing lights by Davy Cunningham, which give the play an appropriately stuffy cinematic feel. A slightly more rigorous pacing, however, would not dampen the charm of most scenes, and would probably encourage more laughs from the emotionally astute but fairly sluggish company.

At least the performers find the vibrant and violent aspects of these people, without degrading into caricatures that the play's fragile structure could never support. Mullen and Molloy have a warmly witty rapport as the two sisters, while Pearse is the picture of adorable annoyance whether with them or with the dynamically deadpan O'Connell. Kinlan and Condon are energetic delights, while Connolly is alternately thoughtful, fatherly, and frightening.

Monaghan sticks with you most, his slyly calculating yet unaffected manner deftly avoiding eliciting potentially undue sympathy for Billy. Monaghan never lets you forget Billy's insistence on making his own way on his own terms - whatever the cost. A determination in his eyes screams that he's willing to be his own man if it ruins him and those who care for him. Maybe it goes without saying he's already approaching the point of no return.

But his struggle is McDonagh's as well: In each of his plays and films he further explores the boundaries between comedy and tragedy, between appearance and identity and, most importantly, whether you can ever go too far. He doesn't here, and that will always make this seem one of his lesser plays. But he dares to broach the subject, and compared with the sterile, prepackaged plays that so often pass as theatre today, The Cripple of Inishmaan is indeed a great accomplishment - and a great play.

The Cripple of Inishmaan
Through February 1
Atlantic Theater Company at The Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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