The Lieutenant of Inishmore is absurdly funny.
Theatre Exile contributes to the Philadelphia Irish Theatre Festival with a raucous production of Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore. McDonagh’s dark comedy may not be the funniest play ever written but it’s not far behind.
Set on the remote Irish island of Inishmore, the story focuses on the exploits of the island’s residents. Smart, they aren’t, but in their own crude way they are a colorful, likeable lot.
As the play begins, the cat Wee Thomas is lying on a kitchen table. Huddled over Thomas are the home’s owner Donny (Pearce Bunting) and his young friend Davey (Robert DaPonte). They look concerned and with good reason. Thomas is not well. In fact, he is dead—very dead. But the cat they are frantically trying to stuff the guts and bits of brain back into is not the real cause of Donny’s and Davey’s consternation. It’s Wee Thomas’ father/owner Padriac (Paul Felder), who is a terrorist so vicious that according to Davey, “the IRA wouldn’t let him in because he was too mad.” At the moment, Padriac (Donny’s son) is out of town “bombing places” and he’s entrusted the care of Wee Thomas to Donny. Padriac may be a cold-blooded killer, but he loves his cat, and Donny fears that Padriac will blame him for Thomas’ untimely death.
After torturing an unfortunate marijuana dealer (Keith Conallen), Padriac returns to town to check on Thomas. His reaction is even more violent than Donny foresaw and by the end of McDonagh’s play, Donny’s home is littered with bloody felines, shattered teeth, severed limbs and an assortment of detached heads.
The final play written in McDonagh’s Aryan Islands trilogy (which includes The Cripple of Inishmaan, which is being presented at the Annenberg Center later this month), Inishmore is ghoulishly funny and absurdly bloody, so much so that Exile’s production (the largest in the company’s history) is supported by a special “blood and gore sponsor” the Wyncote Foundation. Even as we laugh at all the outrageous amount of blood and brains that end up decorating the walls of Donny’s home, it’s important to note that McDonagh’s grisly humor is not mindless. That much is made abundantly clear in director Matt Pfeiffer’s gleefully malicious production.
With its exaggerated violence and dark humor, Inishmore only succeeds if it is approached with deadly seriousness, and Exile’s production falls flat when the actors overplay their parts for laughs. Luckily, this only occurs on two occasions (both early in the play), and for the most part Pfeiffer’s bristling production hits the mark.
At the center of all the mayhem is Padriac and Felder, excellent at reconciling the character’s somewhat contradictory personality. Felder has experience with aggressive characters, having played a would-be rapist in Extremities and a brash, Howard Stern-type host in Talk Radio , both with New City Stage. Felder easily expresses the terrorist’s confidence and ruthless machismo, and his Padriac is equally believable as both a callous torturer and a devoted pet lover.
The best performance among the strong ensemble belongs to the wily veteran William Zielinski, who is fabulous as the one-eyed INLA leader Christy. “He was always a good soldier Padriac, just a wee-bit enthusiastic” says Christy, who has come to Inishmore with two of his henchman (played by Brian McCann and the wonderfully funny Andrew Kane) to assassinate their comrade in arms. Christy has taken exception with Padraic’s crusade against drug dealers, especially as these patriotic pushers are responsible for financing INLA activities. “What Padriac doesn’t understand is it isn’t only for the school kids we’re freeing Ireland; It’s for the junkies, the thieves and drug pushers, too.”
“Four dead fellas, two dead cats, my hairstyle ruined!” Davey cries out, surveying the wreckage at the play’s conclusion. Using blood-gushing, brain-splattering humor to show the result of nationalism run amok, McDonagh questions the tactics of Ireland’s revolutionary armies and whether the ends justify the means. Families torn apart, relationships ruined, friendships destroyed; In McDonagh’s Ireland, violence has become so pervasive that no one—not even loyal pets—can escape the madness.
Through March 13. $15-$40. Plays and Players Theater, 1714 Delancey St. 215.218.4022. theatreexile.org
Calendar: Aug. 26-Sept. 2