Opening Nights: The Lieutenant of Inishmore

Irish goons kill for the sake of a cat.

The term "black comedy" doesn't quite describe Martin McDonagh's cleverly constructed booby-trap farce about a splinter cell of Irish terrorists. A new color category is needed: cranberry. That's the hue you eventually see splashed and puddled all over the stage in Lieutenant. Whereas McDonagh's other works, including The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Pillowman, leave most of the terror to the imagination, Lieutenant proffers a large cast of human fodder, many a pint of fake blood, and a comic detachment from that violence. Disregard for life is instantly established in the opening scene as we stare at a cat's headless corpse. Lowly thugs Davey (MJ Sieber) and Donny (Seán G. Griffin) regard the animal like plutonium, knowing that its death will drive its owner, Padraic (Jeffrey Fracé), frightful leader of their faction, beyond mourning and into full vengeance mode. For Padraic, the sun rises and sets on his kitty Wee Thomas, and he'll commit any number of human murders in retribution for the pampered pet's harm. But Padraic also kills another cat for the sole reason that it's not his. How capricious and arbitrary are his (and our) allegiances and raisons d'etre! Director Kurt Beattie sculpts delectable moments of stupidity among the seven thugs, some of the weirdest of which occur between Davey's sister, Mairead (spitfire Elise Hunt in spiky hair), and Padraic; together they share frissons of arousal amid the terror. Sieber's pudgy, wide-eyed Davey is the straight man in this comic mayhem. In an attempt to substitute a fresh cat, disguised with shoe polish, the fumes and mess leave him looking like Boy George. Meanwhile, the gang's safe house—a homey pastiche of peeling vinyl designed by Thomas Lynch—deteriorates from merely shabby to Sweeney Todd grotesque. But, let's ask, what is McDonagh seeking amid this lighthearted carnage? Often compared to Quentin Tarantino, and now directing movies himself (see In Bruges), the Anglo-Irish playwright is also a moralist of sorts. In particular, his 2001 Lieutenant is concerned with empathy. Both the lack of that moral quality, or its surfeit, can get you in trouble. For us, it's satisfying to watch a certain character's failure of empathy come back to bite him. Even after the bloodshed, there is justice, no matter how faint. For McDonagh's hooligans, however, there's no such edification. Rather, after the slaughter, the survivors may actually be bored with the violence. As perhaps are we. (McDonagh wrote the play around the time of a cease-fire declared by the IRA splinter group that inspired him.) Ironically, the ennui that enabled them to massacre one another without compunction may ultimately be their salvation. Would that all morality tales were as entertaining, efficacious, and cranberry-red as this.

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