Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

San Jose Stage Company
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Also see Eddie's recent review of The Kite Runner

Will Springhorn Jr.
Photo by Dave Lepori
Take your seat, fasten your seatbelt, and prepare for another dark-comedy roller coaster ride on the Martin McDonagh Express, once again available for a sinister, laugh-filled ride as terrifically and terrifyingly staged by San Jose Stage Company (The Stage) where audiences have howled and cringed in equal measures five times in the past for such McDonagh hits as The Beauty of Queen of Leenane, The Lonesome West, and most recently in 2018, The Lieutenant of Inishmore.

With a brilliant cast of Bay Area stars quite familiar and beloved by its audiences, The Stage is presenting the West Coast premiere of McDonagh's latest acclaimed award-winner, Hangmen, a hilarious and horrific take on capital punishment and the increasing acceptance of violence as a means to seemed justice. Like most other Martin McDonagh plays, it is one where an audience member's loud, almost uncontrolled laughter tonight may lead to tomorrow's stomach queasiness and a pause for deep introspection.

As we enter the theater, we see a young man onstage tossing and turning on a cot, soon rising to rock back and forth, clasping his locked arms with tight fists, and finally shivering as if chilled. Behind him we see a rope noose hanging over a raised platform. The play opens as the young man's executioner, Harry, and his assistant, Syd, fight to wrestle the screaming man's hand off the bed's headstand, as the doomed youth named Hennessy pleads his innocence–something we think may be true by the sincerity of his pleas up to the moment of the release of the hangman's lever and the violent drop of the rope and man.

During a somewhat eerie interlude of a cheerfully sung "Life goes on day after day, hearts torn in every way" from Gerry and the Pacemakers' 1964 "Ferry Cross the Mersey," the 1963 prison scene switches to a local pub in a northern England village where Harry (Will Springhorn Jr.) is now the owner, since Great Britain has abolished the death penalty. Dapperly dressed in bow tie and three-piece suit, Harry is boisterously presiding with an air of superiority over a court of admirers, a quirky group of clearly regulars–pint-guzzlers who hang on to his every word. There is big-mouthed Bill (Nick Mandracchia), who loudly pipes up between pints about the merits of hanging criminals. We meet also an old man named Arthur (Randall King), who is deaf as a doorknob, and his friend Charlie (Michael Storm), who shouts into Arthur's ears all the comments the old geezer misses (with Arthur more often than not cutting to the chase with a hilarious retort and more truth than anything else being said). In walks local Inspector Fry (Michael Champlin), who is clearly more accomplished as an alcoholic than as a detective. Each is like a character right out of the Sunday funnies (think Andy Capp), and together they are a load of laughs and a quite pitiful specimens of men with not many thoughts/opinions of their own, too ready to swoon over and even be ridiculed by the stage-centric Harry.

Doling out their pints is Harry's smiling wife Alice (Judith Miller), who with her own booming heavy-accented voice calls everyone "Love" but clearly is too often the brunt of many of Harry's snide remarks and insults.

Today a reporter named Clegg (Matthew Locke) has also shown up at the pub, hoping to get an interview with one of the country's last two, now out-of-work, hangmen. Even though Harry at first repeatedly retorts with a blustery "No comment," he eventually leads the reporter upstairs for a private chat "off the record."

The next morning's edition plastered with Harry's picture, however, is everything but "no comment," as the loudmouth egotist has bragged of his twenty-four-year career and 233 executions, detailing scenes of the condemned crying in their last moments. He has also made disparaging remarks about his rival, Albert Pierrepoint ("His hairs smells of death, or maybe just stale Brylcreem"), whose reputation as England's Number One Hangman is bolstered by hanging scores of Nazis during and after the war. But when asked, on what is the second annual anniversary of James Hennessy's execution, whether he had ever executed anyone innocent, Harry bristles, finally remarking "maybe we'll never know" of Hennessy's guilt/innocence, "Boo hoo ... Another pint?"

Yet another customer arrives at the pub with an air of mystery–a young man with long, blond hair dressed more for the streets of London than for a pub in Oldham. Peter Mooney (Matthew Kropschot, who earlier portrayed the doomed Hennessy) brings a cocky, confident, yet curiously charming air to the pub. There is also just enough menace in his eyes and smirk on his lips to push a number of buttons, as if to purposely raise the suspicions of others. When one-on-one with Harry and Alice's shy fifteen-year-old, daughter Shirley (Carley Herlihy), Mooney is also funny and flirty–enough to be deemed at least by us as audience as a bit sleazy. Shirley is moping about a friend whose parents have that day committed her to a mental institution, to which Mooney proposes to help alleviate her sadness by taking her later to visit the poor girl.

As he always does, Martin McDonagh begins now to drop multiple clues that increase our unease with the young, attractive Mooney. There is also some unexplained connection between Mooney and Syd (Keith Pinto), Harry's former assistant in the prison who was fired by the self-righteous Harry for making a comment about the length and width of one of their hanging victim's private part.

All is finally set up for a second act full of the playwright's famous brand of wide-eyed, grip-your-armrest tension, surprises, and squeamish moments. The twists and turns that this exceedingly talented cast leads us through are directed by James Reese with split-second timing and a nod to both Alfred Hitchcock and Mel Brooks to maximize the horror and the humor. Robert Pickering's scenic design and Jenn Trampenau's detailed properties design combine the creepiness of the gallows with the countryside fun of a local watering spot.

Ashley Garlick's costumes accentuate in both settings those same qualities as well as establishing the personalities and dark sides of the play's two, opposing protagonists, Harry and Mooney. Maurice Vercoutere's lighting and Steve Schoenbeck's sound design–among many other accomplishments–bring the naturally required thunder-and-rain storm into fully believable existence. Perhaps the production's loudest applause should go to dialect coach Kimberly Mohne Hill since, aurally, we are most assuredly transported to northern England.

Martin McDonagh's intent seems clearly to make a statement against capital punishment as both a deterrent to crime and as a sure-fired way to punish a deserving culprit. But in choosing the plural of "hangmen" for the title, the playwright also appears to be implying that more of us than just the lever-pusher are responsible for the acceptance of the mounting violence against innocent others that still permeates too many societies in the world. That is maybe even more true in 2024 than when the play first premiered in 2015. That underlying suggestion is the next-day's pondering that McDonagh sentences his audiences to undergo–something San Jose Stage Company's excellent but disturbing production of Hangmen guarantees.

Hangmen runs through April 28, 2024, at San Jose Stage Company, 490 South 1st Street, San Jose CA. For tickets and information, please visit