Opening Nights: A Behanding in Spokane

Martin McDonagh's mutilation-and-revenge comedy.

Like Ahab seeking revenge for his lost leg, a middle-aged thug named Carmichael is obsessed with finding justice for a lost limb. Twenty-seven years earlier, some "hillbillies east of Spokane" pinned his arm down on a train track, then waved his own severed hand at him as they disappeared into the distance. Fact? Fiction? Delusion? Rationalization for violence? Does it really matter? In the grand Irish narrative tradition, filtered into Martin McDonagh's 2010 play, the height of the tale is paramount; this is the tale Carmichael believes.

Moments into Behanding, the brooding Carmichael (Gordon Carpenter) shoots a bullet into the closet of set designer Cole Hornaday's appropriately seedy hotel room. Desperate Marilyn (Hannah Mootz) enters with a box of . . . hand. Unfortunately it's not Carmichael's, but a stolen museum artifact. Marilyn's boyfriend Toby (Corey Spruill) emerges from the closet alive; Carmichael then chains them to the radiator and wicks a gas can to blow in 45 minutes while he goes to Toby's house to look for his severed hand. Get the idea? Terror, reprieve, terror, reprieve—all rendered with macabre situational humor. (Toby and Marilyn try to disable the bomb by throwing shoes and then a trunkful of severed hands at it.)

This is not major McDonagh. The droll, uneven Behanding is shallower than his The Pillowman or The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Colorful characters take precedence over plot—as in his recent movie Seven Psychopaths, whose Christopher Walken originated the role of Carmichael on Broadway. Yet McDonagh hasn't lost his gift for endearingly weird monologues, as when hotel receptionist Mervyn (Brandon Ryan) rambles about an intimate encounter with a gibbon at a zoo and dreams about winning a "lesbian award" for protecting lesbians.

In his first play set in America, the Anglo-Irish McDonagh scores many laughs with pure language, a profane and politically incorrect slacker nerdcool-ese. Directed by Peggy Gannon, Behanding mainly skates by on the strength of Mervyn's bizarre musings and the comic supporting roles. Toby and Marilyn can never get on the same page with their excuses for Carmichael. Mootz plays Marilyn as mentally and physically slow, while Spruill's Toby scrambles inventively to pick up her slack. Does the hand really matter? In McDonagh's perverse moral code, yes, but the errant limb is mainly an excuse for nonsensical, long-winded fun.

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