Martin McDonagh may be best known as the writer-director of the 2008 film In Bruges, but he’s established himself as the bad boy of Irish theater for nearly 15 years. The playwright is rather like a Gaelic version of Quentin Tarantino, and shares the American filmmaker’s affinity for sudden acts of shocking violence, quirky humor, and characters with a gift of gab (and no aversion to profanity).
For his first play set in the United States, A Behanding in Spokane (now playing on Broadway), McDonagh and director John Crowley have found the ideal leading man: Christopher Walken. To be honest, the role isn’t much of a stretch for this gifted comic actor. He plays a variation of what has become the Walken archetype: menacing, quirky, intelligent, and almost accidentally hilarious. Not always in that order.
The curtain opens to a bedraggled, one-handed fellow named Carmichael (Walken) in a hotel room that’s several building-code violations past seedy. He’s set up a meeting with two dim-witted young weed dealers, Marilyn (the wide-eyed Zoe Kazan) and Toby (Anthony Mackie, who occasionally projects a bit too much intelligence and articulateness). The duo has promised to sell him a human hand — what he hopes will be his hand, the one that he says he lost to thugs when he was a little boy and for which he’s been searching for 47 years. Carmichael has already fired his pistol, but the weapon seems almost superfluous in conveying a sense of threat to Marilyn and Toby. He’s Christopher-freakin’-Walken!
The hotel’s reception-desk guy, Mervyn (the perfectly cast Sam Rockwell), turns up to investigate the gunshot and to voice his suspicions about the noise — and returns occasionally at opportune moments as McDonagh’s ingeniously twisty plot unfolds. McDonagh has basically written a noirish farce in which just about every available element of the threadbare set — the closet, the radiator, the suitcase — plays a significant role in the story.
There is something delightfully, wickedly off about all four characters in Behanding, including Rockwell’s Mervyn. ”I always used to hope they’d have one of those shooting massacres at my high school, didn’t you?? he says at one point. ”They’d come in, y’know, as they do, dressed like soldiers, just to be different, and then I’d, y’know, do something brave and save everybody. Well, not everybody, else it wouldn’t be a high school massacre, but maybe after they got, say, twelve?” And as McDonagh & Co. build the suspense toward what seems to be an inevitably explosive finale, we’re forced to ponder why we too seem to be drawn to stories of extreme violence. How much does our collective curiosity about the extreme and the macabre fuel society’s nuttiest members to act out their (and our) most out-there fantasies? B+