By Adam B. Vary
Updated July 13, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT
Craig Schwartz

Within the first minute of The Lieutenant of Inishmore, the audience is chortling at the sight of a chunk of brains plopping out from the bashed-in skull of a limp, dead cat. It is that kind of play. When it opened in the U.S. in 2006, first ”Off and then on ”Broadway”, much was made of the production’s Tarantino-meets-Grand-Guignol bloodletting, and the ultra-violence was seen as the barmy backbone for some sharply funny satire of Northern Ireland’s Troubles. For the play’s Los Angeles debut — which opened July 11, and closes Aug. 8 — the intimate, thrust stage of the Mark Taper Forum provides a perfect venue for the play’s now infamously violent second act. All the blasting gunshots and sticky red clumps of gore feel distressingly, hilariously intimate, goading the audience into deliciously nervy waves of anxious laughter.

But as for the play’s first act? Well. Having never seen the New York productions, I can’t comment on how L.A.’s stacks up. But I have to wonder if there’s something about the West Coast that somehow drains the play of an urgency that might otherwise elevate it beyond a bracingly silly night of theater. As it is, Chris Pine certainly erases any memory of Capt. James Kirk as Padriac, a half-mad Northern Ireland revolutionary deemed too loony for the IRA, who races home to Inishmore after learning his only friend of 15 years, his black cat Wee Thomas, has fallen ill. Which is to say, the cat’s wee skull has been been cracked open, and Padriac’s daft father Donny (Seén G. Griffin) and Davey (Coby Getzug), the even more daft young Irish lad who found the feline in the road, rightly fear Padriac would gladly crack open their skulls should he learn that Wee Thomas is actually dead.

Pine’s accent — like the accents of most of the non-Irish actors in the production — wobbles into far-flung regions of the globe more than once, but he otherwise proves so magnetic a stage presence that he unwittingly throws the show off-kilter. We should rightly be more focused on 16-year-old Mairead (Zoe Perry), Davey’s boyish older sister with a lifelong thing for Padriac and an ominous knack for blinding local cows with her air rifle. But Perry just isn’t nearly dangerous enough to match Pine’s natural charisma, and the play’s classically structured first act loses the sense of hungry desperation that should feed a play about the Troubles.

But oh, that second act. Like the most finely tuned farce, playwright Martin McDonagh and director Wilson (who’s been with the show since its 2001 premiere in the U.K.) build to the riotously barbarous climax that ably earns the audience’s gasps of gleeful shock. (The play’s biggest laugh was unfortunately marred the evening I saw the show by a technical snafu — where there should have been gallons of blood, there were merely a few splattered ounces.) We’re meant to see both the absurdity inherent in a culture built on vengeful violence and our own complicity in it, and we do. But while the bloody mayhem may owe a tip of the cap to L.A.’s native son Quentin Tarantino, sunny Southern California still feels a long way from the only too recently grim streets of troubled Belfast. B

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