Playwright Martin McDonagh doesn’t reside in the United States, but he vividly captures the current character of America in his latest play A Behanding in Spokane, which is now onstage in a superbly acted, directed and designed production from Theatre Exile.
The latest pitch-black comedy from the author of the hilariously violent The Lieutenant of Inishmore (which Exile mounted in a gleeful blood-splattered production in 2011), Behanding marks the playwright’s return to the stage after taking time away from theater to focus on his film career.
The first of McDonagh’s works to be set in the States, Behanding—which he wrote in 2010—takes place in a miserable little hotel room. It looks like the sort of place where strange and scary things might happen, and sure enough, McDonagh doesn’t disappoint. Over the course of its 90-minute run, we are exposed to a flurry of macabre situations and eccentric characters.
Nobody does strange and scary as well as actor Pearce Bunting, and he is spectacular as the play’s central character, Carmichael. A determined but warped individual, Carmichael has spent the last 27 years in search of his missing hand, which he insists was cut off by a group of demented hillbillies who kidnapped him and then, just for kicks, held his hand against a railroad track while it was run over by a speeding car. The hillbillies then waved goodbye to young Carmichael with his own detached hand.
The story’s veracity is suspect, but either way, Carmichael’s quest for his personal property has become an obsession. The retrieval of his hand is what led Carmichael to the hotel and a meeting with Toby (Reuben Mitchell in an intelligent, impressive performance) and his politically correct girlfriend Marilyn (the equally wonderful Amanda Schoonover). The charming, though not particularly successful, pot dealers attempted to sell a shriveled hand to Carmichael, who doesn’t fall for the ruse. Without giving too much away, Toby and Marilyn quickly find themselves in a very precarious situation.
McDonagh’s outlandish writing is as colorful and dazzling as ever, especially when the unfortunate Toby expresses his amazement at the absurdity of the predicament he and Marilyn find themselves in (such as when the pair are handcuffed to a radiator and are desperately hurling chopped off hands at a burning candle stuffed in a gas can). There are a few implausible plot twists that McDonagh relies on to maintain the play’s tension, but these are minor faults that are quickly forgotten amidst the expertly choreographed mayhem created by director Joe Canuso and his flawless cast.
In addition to the superb performances provided by Bunting, Mitchell and Schoonover, Matt Pfeiffer is spectacular as the hotel’s racist and nosy receptionist. Possibly the best performance by any actor this season, Pfeiffer’s Mervyn is cruel, but his life is so pathetic that despite his appalling attitudes regarding blacks and women, we almost pity him.
Meghan Jones’ shabby set, Rosemarie McKelvey’s thrift-store costumes and Thom Weaver’s sickly, yellowish lighting are reminiscent of a post-apocalyptic world, but McDonagh provides no evidence that a cataclysmic event has occurred. In fact, just the opposite. Despite the strange events, the play has an everyday quality that suggests this is just another day in oligarchic America, where the ideals of hope and change embodied by President Obama have given way to pettiness and cynicism. “There are some pretty mean people in the world, and I ain’t lying,” declares Toby. The Americans in Behanding can be selfish, cruel and antagonistic, but in its surprisingly hopeful conclusion, McDonagh suggests that beneath the violence and contempt, a tiny speck of compassion survives.
Through May 13. $25-$30. Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American St. theatreexile.org