Hangmen review: The noose is loose in Martin McDonagh's killer comedy
A sort of poet laureate of lives brutish and short, Martin McDonagh has imprinted his particular brand of bleakly comic storytelling across theater (The Pillowman, A Behanding in Spokane) and movies (In Bruges, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) for nearly three decades now. Though the term "gallows humor" has never lent itself to an interpretation quite as literal as Hangmen, his waggish, shaggy tale of men who kill — some legally, others less so — for a living.
Already a hit in London (where it won two Oliviers, including Best New Play), the British playwright's latest became one of several high-profile imports whose planned debuts came up against the immovable wall of the pandemic in March 2020. Despite reports that it would pull out for good, the piece returns to Broadway two years later, somewhat altered — Game of Thrones' Alfie Allen has stepped in for original star Dan Stevens — but unbowed.
It's 1965 in some drab little corner of England, where Harry (David Threlfall) has the distinct honor of being both the second-best hangman in the land and the proud owner of a modest pub he lives above with his fretful wife, Alice (Tracie Bennett), and teenage daughter, Shirley (Gaby French). Capital punishment has just been outlawed, and a local journalist named Clegg (Owen Campbell) comes looking for a money quote from the man who once oversaw the eternal rest of several hundred souls, give or take. Harry — blusteringly assured of both his moral fortitude and his rope skills — is more than happy to hold court.
Clegg isn't the only interloper bellying up to the bar: Enter Allen's Mooney, a dapper young stranger up from London whose big-city swagger contains a strange, hard edge. Is his urge for a pint and a place to stay — or his pointed interest in Shirley — really a coincidence? Hangmen's dramatic tension rests mostly on that question, though Syd (Andy Nyman), Harry's anxious onetime assistant, seems to know more about Mooney than he's letting on to his former boss and the pub's sozzled regulars (John Horton, Ryan Pope, and Richard Hollis).
The sets, by Anan Fleischele (who won one of those Oliviers), are an ingenious construction, their interlocked parts sliding out and up like oversize drawers in a cabinet of wonders. And director Matthew Dunster, another London alumnus, keeps the action moving at a brisk but unhurried clip, ferreting out the deeper feeling embedded in the script even as the tone walks a tricky line between tragedy and farce. (Imagine a very special episode of Cheers, viewed through a pint-glass filter of neck-snapping nihilism and Northern accents.)
Allen is wolfish and glimmering, a man whose fast-talking charms don't have to be scratched hard to find the ruthlessness beneath, and French's sweet, daffy Shirley deftly captures the anxiety and dreaminess of being 15 and "pretty on the inside." ("But you're not though, love," her mother retorts matter-of-factly.) As Pierrepont — the gold-medalist hangman to Harry's silver — John Hodgkinson (The Ferryman) makes up for a late arrival with the pure command of his presence, his oak-tree stature and lordly arrogance a welcome jolt to the symphony of slapstick revelations in the last act.
Death is an ever-present character too, or at least the specter that (no pun) hangs over it all. That's par for the course with McDonagh, though the cheerful brutality of his work can sometimes betray a certain emptiness at the core; what are the stakes, when even a fatal miscarriage of justice is played for punchlines? Hangmen suffers from some of that dissonance, and its longer, talkier interludes serve more as amiable time fillers than story engine. But there's real pathos in between the lines and endless pints of lager — even maybe a little heart. Grade: B+