March 27, 2010

“A Behanding in Spokane” Belittles An Actor

It’s a weird experience to watch a show that you don’t find funny when everyone else around you is laughing their heads off.  But that’s what happened to me when my friend Priscilla and I saw A Behanding in Spokane, the new Martin McDonagh play that’s currently got them rolling in the aisles at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.

It may be theatrical blasphemy to say this but I’ve never been a big McDonagh fan. It’s hip to be into him, for liking McDonagh is like championing the band Radiohead or the TV show “Dexter”—it allows devotees to boast, Yeah, I’m into pop culture but only the smart kind. And even I’ve been amused by McDonagh’s shrewd earlier works The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Cripple of Inishmaan. But they also struck me as too smug about their own cleverness. I really regret missing his play The Pillowman, which from everything I’ve read and heard is the most mature and meaningful of his works.

A Behanding in Spokane may be the most juvenile. There’s a slight plot that pivots around a guy who claims some hillbillies (this is the first McDonagh play to be set in the U.S. instead of Ireland) cut off his hand when he was a boy and his lifelong quest to reunite with it. Two ludicrously incompetent con artists try to swindle the one-handed man by selling him a phony limb. He uncovers their ruse. Violent mayhem ensues. But mainly the 90-minute play is just lots of put-down jokes and even more profanity, including line after line of hey-I’m-so-cool-I-can-use-it citations of the N-word.

I did chuckle a few times (although not at the far-too-many uses of the N-epithet). Nearly all my laughs were caused by Christopher Walken, who over the years has become our most idiosyncratic actor on stage or screen. You never know what inflection Walken is going to give a line reading or what a difference his edgy phrasing can bring to the meaning of what’s been said.  And that is fun.

What isn’t is the rest of the play.  Director John Crowley has assembled a talented supporting cast: Zoe Kazan, Anthony Mackie and Sam Rockwell.  But McDonagh hasn’t created real characters for them to play.  What he offers instead are colorless cartoons.  But even the looniest Looney Toons characters follow the logic of the world they inhabit. The ones in A Behanding in Spokane fail that test too.

The actors try to camouflage the discrepancies with quirky behavior. But in an apparent effort to be as off-beat as Walken, the younger three veer into histronics-land. Kazan's natural gift for physical comedy allows her to come off best (click here to read a Playbill interview with her). Rockwell, an indie film favorite who plays the eccentric receptionist in the hotel where the action unfolds, has always seemed to be a Walken-in-waiting. He’s got the deadpan delivery down but unlike the older actor whose off-kilter charm seems effortless, the wheels grind too visibly when Rockwell turns them.

Most troublesome, at least for me, is Mackie’s performance. Mackie, who has stage chops and a flourishing film career, is a smart and talented actor but he appears to have been directed by Crowley—and by McDonagh’s text—to play the part (which, it’s rumored, was originally offered to Chris Rock) as a Stepin Fetchit stereotype, complete with the requisite cowering, eye rolling and squeals. I ached for him, as did The New Yorker critic Hilton Als, the only African-American voice among the major New York theater critics (click here to read his review.)

There’s often a streak of cruelty in comedy;  that’s why we laugh at pratfalls. But it really isn’t funny when a playwright humiliates his actors.


Anonymous said...

A well-written, thoughtful commentary on a play I have no intention of seeing (after reading Hilton Als’s New Yorker piece). You managed to distill for us both the essence of the play (as well as the play’s arguable shortcomings), in a clear, easy-to read take that is admirable. I look forward to reading your future writings on theatre.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Thanks for you very kind words, Jelani. I hope that you will continue reading and commenting too. Cheers, jan