Bay Area audiences have become familiar with the devilish and often bloody-minded wit of Martin McDonagh over the last decade or two, largely thanks to excellent productions of the London-born Irish playwright’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Pillowman and The Lieutenant of Inishmore at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. But Berkeley Rep’s had no monopoly on McDonagh by any means, as his plays have been staged by Magic Theatre, TheatreWorks, Wilde Irish and Cal Performances, among others. Now SF Playhouse gets into the act with the regional premiere of A Behanding in Spokane, which debuted on Broadway two years ago.
Behanding occupies an unusual place in the McDonagh oeuvre for a couple of reasons. It’s the first new play he’s written since his initial seven-play writing spurt in 1994 (including one that he counts as part of one of his trilogies but doesn’t consider fit for performance or publication), and it’s his only play set in the United States.
Despite the title it doesn’t take place in Spokane, Washington, but in a small town called Tarlington (with an area code that would place it in Ohio). Spokane is where one Mr. Carmichael had his hand cut off and stolen 27 years ago, when he was 17. (It was not a very good year.) He’s been traveling from town to town searching for his hand ever since, racking up a body count along the way. He disposed of the people who cut off his hand in the first place a long time ago, but by then his hand had already migrated out of reach. People who’ve tried to rip him off by selling him the wrong hand have lived to regret it, but not very long.
That brings us to the latest people to try to pawn off some old hand they had lying around. Toby’s a young African-American gentleman who deals weed, and Marilyn is his dim-witted white girlfriend. Their pitch is particularly unconvincing because the hand they turn up with isn’t even from a white guy, something the white racist Carmichael makes a point of discussing at length. The fun comes in the hilariously unconvincing stories Toby comes up with to try to make it sound like an honest mistake, Marilyn’s thickheaded inability to play along, and the hotel’s front desk guy nosing around just because he’s bored. That’s not to mention Carmichael’s frequent calls to his mom because he’s worried about her, a welcome break in the hard-boiled veneer of a guy who, fair enough, is indeed a cold-blooded killer.
The profanity and racial and homophobic epithets hang thick enough in the air to make David Mamet blush. The most obvious influence on Behanding, however, isn’t a playwright at all but Quentin Tarantino. The cult movie director/screenwriter may in fact always have been an influence on the black humor and startling violence in McDonagh’s plays, but it’s a lot more obvious in a noiresque American setting than it is in the rural Ireland where almost all of his other plays are set (except The Pillowman), with a regional dialect that sounds straight out of John Millington Synge.
Even in American English, it turns out, McDonagh’s dialogue is hysterical, expertly delivered by the cast of four in the company’s dynamic production staged by cofounder and producing director Susi Damilano. Artistic director Bill English’s set draws us into a spacious hotel room with stained and peeling wallpaper, a cross-section of the brick wall visible on the near edges of the room and an effective illusion of a ceiling when in fact there is none. Cliff Caruthers’s sound design incorporates some particularly appropriate and familiar musical choices, including the most appropriate Nick Cave song playing as Michael Palumbo’s lights go up.
The always excellent Rod Gnapp is often cast as menacing characters, either the bad guy or someone who seems like he might be, and he’s superb as Carmichael. He’s hilarious in his exasperation, imposing in his relentless resolve, and impressively credible as a guy who might light people on fire just to make a point or carry around luggage that you really, really don’t want to look inside. Only the stump where his hand should be is unconvincing.
As Toby says to Marilyn while waiting for Carmichael to come back and kill them, “I’ll tell ya, as much as I don’t like the guy? That is one determined motherfucker. I ain’t seen a motherfucker more determined. If the guy set his sights on doing something good, cleaning up the environment, motherfucking environment’s gonna end up clean. You ain’t gonna spill some oil-spillage on the head of some seal, from your boat, this motherfucker around! This motherfucker gonna come on your boat and kill you!”
Daveed Diggs’s Toby is clearly the smartest guy in the room, but that’s not saying much because it’s an awfully dim bunch, and it’s not doing him much good when Carmichael holds all the power. Diggs really makes palpable the resignation and frustration that keeps Toby far too focused on how to get out of this fix to worry himself with how freely the N word is getting thrown around. He also gives the sense that when he’s not trying to scam people or get something from them, he’s at heart a pretty nice guy, especially when he unexpectedly finds himself on the phone with Carmichael’s mother. Almost unrecognizable from her previous SF Playhouse roles in Tigers Be Still and Slasher, Melissa Quine is a comical hot mess as Marilyn, loudmouthed and trashily clad. (The shrewdly character-appropriate civvies are by costumer Miyuki Bierlein.) Her stubborn inability to keep up to speed on the situation and her hamhanded attempts to be seductive are priceless.
Alex Hurt is also very funny as the front desk guy, Mervyn, who chafes at being called a receptionist just because he works reception. With a low-key, perpetually stoned affect despite his court-ordered sobriety, he fantasizes about something exciting happening so that he can play hero but lacks the basic empathy to help out for its own sake, or the common sense to particularly notice being in danger. It’s an amusing combination that makes Mervyn a particularly interesting wild card.
Behanding is slighter than most McDonagh plays. At 90 minutes of continuous action in one room (except for one oddly disembodied monologue), it’s more than an extended skit, but as a noir spoof it’s simpler than Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Den of Thieves, which SF Playhouse did two years ago, and about as lightweight. But if you enjoy pitch-black humor and don’t mind some violence and offensive language, it’s a blast.
Show #47 of 2012, attended May 19.