A Behanding in Spokane is an unexpected guilty pleasure. Unexpected, because the play is promoted as a macabre tale full of grisly surprises. Although there are a plethora of blood-soaked amputated hands, this production never really descends into the realm of darkness and horror I expected. Guilty, because the story doesn’t give us much in the way of meaning or plausibility. But ultimately, pleasure, because we do get exceptional performances that deliver a slightly creepy yet hilarious tale of a man looking for his hand that was stolen by hillbillies 27 years earlier. This is a fun, escapist evening of theater.
The play is written by Martin McDonagh, a man with great credentials. He is the first dramatist since Shakespeare to have four works professionally produced on London stages in a single season. His work on stage includes The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Pillowman, all Tony-nominated for Best Play. His movies, In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, have also received positive acclaim. In Behanding, McDonagh continues his fascination with wretched, ill fated, characters. Unfortunately, the story does not live up to the quality of his best work.
Fortunately for us, The Keegan Theatre’s area premiere overcomes the challenges with deft direction that highlights the humor, and a stellar cast who give memorable performances. Colin Smith deserves thunderous applause for his direction that successfully delivers maximum laughs without going over the top. The story has an absurd premise and a bounty of challenges waiting to explode but Smith manages to avoid the landmines while maintaining a clear vision of the story being told.
The play opens on Carmichael (Mark A. Rhea), a seedy-looking man in a seedy-looking hotel room. He seems desperate and on the edge of something…something that will not end well. Enter Mervyn, the hotel-receptionist, boxer-shorts guy. Played by Keegan Company member Bradley Foster Smith, Mervyn is a hapless hotel clerk with a deep desire for something—anything—to happen. He lives in his imagination where he is the hero who always gets the girl.
Of course, there is a girl, Marilyn (Laura Herren) who we meet as she rushes in with a box containing what she says is Carmichael’s hand. She and her boyfriend Toby (Manu Kumasi) are selling the hand for $500. All Toby really wants is some money so he can give his girlfriend an evening at a nice hotel but Marilyn and Toby are out of their league in this con game and must suffer the consequences.
Bradley Foster Smith’s performance is a tour de force. His monologue, ranging in topics from caged gibbons to high school massacres, is spellbinding. I am sad when he leaves the stage as his full complement of body quirks and facial tics make him interesting to watch even when he is not at the center of the scene. While he is not the play’s protagonist, the range and depth he gives to his character moves us to see much of the play’s action through his eccentric worldview.
In the role of the one-handed man that was originated by Christopher Walken on Broadway, Mark Rhea, gives an understated energy that keeps Carmichael from becoming a caricature. While we learn he has killed in revenge, he lacks a Walken-esque malevolence and anger as he tells the story of the loss of his hand with pathos and unintended humor. It’s almost as if he has told the story so many times that he can’t manage to get too angry anymore. He seems to communicate that his obsessive journey to find his lost hand is counterbalanced by his lack of benefit and purpose once he does find the hand.
Laura Herren does well with what she is given. As the most “normal” character on stage, Herren provides a foundation for the show that allows the craziness and mania to be conceivable. She has the thankless job of playing straight man to Manu Kumasi’s fast talking, nearly hysterical Toby. Kumasi is given the most obvious humor of the show and manages to pull it off with great comic timing, clear enunciation and dynamic facial expressions as he swings between highs and lows.
The set, designed by Colin Smith with set dressing and properties by Carol H. Baker, is appropriately dingy with peeling wallpaper, a retro phone, and torn curtains. I might have liked a bit dingier lighting but the overall effect worked.
Go see this guilty pleasure. On one hand, there are a mountain of laughs, and on the other hand…oh wait…there is only one hand.
Running Time: Ninety minutes, with no intermission.
A Behanding in Spokane plays through April 7, 2013 at The Keegan Theatre at Church Street Theater – 1742 Church Street, NW, Washington. Tickets may be purchased online or at the door. Recommended for mature audiences.
Contains profanity, violence, and adult situations.