Required Viewing: A Behanding in Spokane

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Plays often fall into the trap of telling rather than showing. And then there are playwrights like Martin McDonagh, who crafts viscerally-charged stories that effortlessly unfold and always leave us wanting more. The world premiere of his latest, A Behanding in Spokane , Friday night at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre proved no exception, flying by in a taut, intermission-free 90 minutes. Its charmingly bizarre conclusion hits a lighter note than Mcdonagh’s previous works; it’s also his first to be set in America and originate on Broadway.

John Crowley ( The Pillowman ) directs a superb star-studded cast led by Christopher Walken (in a rare theatrical appearance) whose character, Carmichael, is the victim of an unusual and sudden behanding in his formative years. The incident natrually sends him on a life-long journey to reclaim his stolen appendage. Walken’s commanding presence is felt from the moment the lights go up, allowing him to play with expectations and step slightly outside of the “creepy criminal” roles that have defined his career.

On this particular journey, he places a classified ad that draws the attention of an amateur con artist couple, Marilyn (Zoe Kazan) and Toby (Anthony Mackie), who see it as an opportunity to make a quick score. They soon regret their choice when Carmichael catches wise and takes them hostage. The couple is forced to confront the communication problems in their relationship as they struggle to get free and defuse a ticking time bomb. Kazan and Mackie have great chemistry and are captivating in their scenes together and with Walken.

The three have plenty of drama to sustain the one-act, but McDonagh treats us to a fourth and equally quirky character: the morbidly curious and slightly suicidal hotel clerk Mervyn (Sam Rockwell). He appears at regular (and inopportune) moments to lighten the mood with delightfully awkward comic relief (see: his extensive monologue on his love of monkeys).

While all the signature McDonagh tropes are present — shady characters, blood and guts, gallows humor — he adds a new dimension to this work by tackling the issue of race with plenty of wit. Carmichael, in addition to having psychopathic tendencies, is a racist, which is something he picked up from his mother. Marilyn calls him on his behavior and the irony of debating distasteful racial slurs while being doused with gasoline is sharply displayed. It’s hard to say whether this is a signal that the prolific playwright will tackle more social and political issues in the future, but it would be a welcome addition to the “issue play” genre. We can’t wait to see whatever he takes on next.

All photos courtesy of Joan Marcus.