When You Need a Hand
Disembodied limbs and vengeance in Cygnet's "Behanding"Written by Ren Ebel
30 January 2012
Since he began his career in the mid-’90s, Irish playwright Martin McDonagh has steadily built a reputation as a sort of Quentin Tarantino of the theater world, his scripts brimming with electrifying violence, dark humor, interweaving character arcs and a whole lot of political incorrectness.
His latest play delivers all that and a briefcase of disembodied hands.
“A Behanding in Spokane” opens in a seedy Midwest hotel room — an apt choice for McDonagh’s first venture set in the States — and immediately, we are introduced to our lovably-disgruntled, pistol-toting, one-handed antihero, Carmichael (Jeffrey Jones). Having searched most of his adult life for his left hand, which was taken from him in a violent childhood altercation, Carmichael comes to the hotel to purchase the hand that two in-over-their-heads pot dealers (Kelly Iverson and Vimel) insist is his own. When, of course, it isn’t, the result is a witty and brutal web of stories, lies and violence.
Most of “Behanding”’s charm lies in McDonagh’s script, which so expertly plays with plot and character conventions to keep the action fresh and unpredictable. The ominous secret Carmichael’s mother gravely says she must keep from the police — a trope that would scream “final-act drama” anywhere else — is quickly revealed to be Carmichael’s porno collection, while later, some of the play’s most startling moments erupt during its most relaxed dialogue.
McDonagh’s complex characters are equally memorable. Carmichael veers between cold-blooded maniac, overly-concerned son and compassionate conversationalist — convincingly unsure which persona he truly wants to embrace. All the while, his naive quest to be reunited with his shriveled, half-a-century-old hand becomes increasingly more absurd.
But the true show stealer is Mike Sears’ neurotic, short shorts-sporting Mervyn — the prying hotel receptionist whose own love for real-life drama prevents him from interfering with Carmichael’s full-blown hostage situation.
The set design is eerily sparse and dingy — a perfect compliment to the Cygnet’s claustrophobic interior — making the sudden spillage of a certain aforementioned briefcase’s contents that much more visually outrageous.
In fact, “Behanding” only falls short when placed beside the rest of McDonagh’s stellar body of work. Though the characters are unconventional and the plot is air-tight, as a whole the production doesn’t approach the sheer scope of his dense and thrilling “Pillowman” and is devoid of the gut-busting one-liners of “In Bruges” — a mark that can perhaps be attributed to the fact that, for the first time, McDonagh’s characters are speaking without their irresistible Irish brogue.
Also somewhat disappointing are the play’s final minutes, which essentially recycle the flawless last scene of McDonagh’s Academy Award-winning short film “Six Shooter” — the glimpse of a budding formula that might leave fans nervous about McDonagh’s already highly-anticipated upcoming musical being co-written by avant blues legend Tom Waits.
But for those unfamiliar with McDonagh’s work, or simply yearning for a theatrical experience you don’t have to drag your grandmother to, “A Behanding in Spokane” delivers on nearly every enjoyable level — a landmark in the career of one of modern theater’s most uniquely twisted minds. (A)