Chicago Theater Review: A BEHANDING IN SPOKANE (Profiles Theatre)

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by Dan Zeff on October 31, 2011

in Theater-Chicago

HAND OVER GIST

Martin McDonagh, the English dramatist known for his quirky and violent plays set in rural Ireland, sets A Behanding in Spokane in the United States, but the setting hasn’t inspired him to create the rich ethnic canvas that makes his Irish plays such vivid playgoing experiences. Although it is not a great play, Profiles Theatre’s midwest premiere definitely keeps the audience nailed to their seats during 90 minutes of improbable action.

A Behanding in Spokane by Martin McDonagh at Profiles Theatre – with Darrell Cox and Eric Burgher – directed by Rick Snyder – Chicago Theater Review by Dan Zeff

Spokane, set in a seedy hotel room in an unnamed small American town, does share a couple of characteristics with its superior Gaelic brethren. Both are loaded with black humor and both are intense and disturbing enough to make the spectators nervous and unsettled. A man named Carmichael, who lost his hand 27 years earlier in a grotesque prank inflicted on him by a group of rednecks in Spokane, Washington (at least, that’s how Carmichael tells the story), has been crisscrossing the country trying to locate his missing hand, an obsession that possibly parallels Captain Ahab’s search for Moby Dick.

A young, mix-raced couple – white Marilyn and black Toby – have concocted a con, offering to sell Carmichael his missing hand for $500. Their hand is bogus and the two find out soon enough they are out of their depth with the homicidal Carmichael, a bad man to mess with.  The fourth character on stage is Mervyn, the hotel’s weirdo receptionist who may or may not have a death wish. If so, he’s come to the right man in the homicidal, gun-toting Carmichael. A fifth character, known only through phone calls, is Carmichael’s elderly mother, a peculiar lady who has fallen out of a tree while trying to rescue a balloon ensnared in the branches.

This is not a play for delicate ears or sensibilities: Carmichael is homophobic and a racist and the use of the “n” word is prominent throughout the play; he joins Marilyn and Toby in delivering overheated dialogue drenched in obscenities. However, the provocative wordplay, along with the intensity of the basic storyline, is what makes the evening a positive experience. McDonagh’s trademark dark humor, mostly emerging from the offbeat situation in the hotel room, is often very funny. Mervyn delivers a long monologue that may make no logical sense but its comical blend of the surreal and the realistic is a hoot. Marilyn and Toby’s desperation as their con game explodes in their faces provides some hilarious moments. Even Carmichael is funny – that is, when he isn’t scary: no doubt the constant presence of Carmichael’s gun on stage will make spectators edgy, but the man is a ticking time bomb and the audience is just as fretful as the characters that he may detonate.

On the negative side, the play’s premise is preposterous and the characters are mostly two-dimensional. They exist to establish a tense, off-the-wall situation that will grab the spectators during the performance, but once the show is over the tension drains away, exposing a comedy/drama that is paper thin in its characters and story development. A menacing atmosphere can sustain a viewing experience just so much. Still, this claustrophobic story belongs in the intimate Profiles acting space, not on a large, Broadway stage, where it had a brief run last season.

A Behanding in Spokane by Martin McDonagh at Profiles Theatre – with Darrell Cox and Eric Burgher – directed by Rick Snyder – Chicago Theater Review by Dan Zeff

Christopher Walken, in his grizzled 60’s, earned rave reviews as Carmichael in the New York production. Walken was no doubt excellent, but sight unseen, I’ll take the inimitable Darrell Cox at Profiles. Nobody in Chicagoland theater surpasses Cox at playing creepy, sinister characters seething with barely suppressed violence. My supposition is that Cox, at least 20 years younger than Walken, gives the narrative a different ambiance. Cox – with his scruffy beard, tacky clothes, and understated fear factor – is a terror, but he’s also pathetic in the end, the only figure with even minimal depth in the story (the play’s narrative strength declines sharply during his absence for several minutes).

Eric Burgher delivers a bravura performance as the unpredictable Mervyn, in his own way just as bizarre, if less overtly violent, as Carmichael. Sara Greenfield and Levenix Riddle are both very good as Marilyn and Toby, though they are both employed largely to scream out their lines in frustration and desperation.

Guest director Rick Snyder from Steppenwolf Theatre orchestrates the action to maximize its offbeat blend of comedy and tensions. This is the kind of play that Steppenwolf did in its early, raw years before it became a national institution. Thad Hallstein’s single set creates the proper grungy physical backdrop for the wacko narrative. David Ferguson designed the lighting, Jeffrey Levin the sound, and Joelle Beranek the thrift shop chic costumes. Greg Poljacik designed the prop hand effects that contribute the play’s single most shocking moment.

McDonagh certainly has been more successful with his Irish plays, such as The Cripple of Inishmaan and The Lieutenant of Inishmore, all of which have received first rate stagings by various area theaters. Reviewers are bound to report the play’s defects in the improbability of its story and its gratuitously rough language, but for audiences prepared to take the play as it comes, A Behanding in Spokane is quite a thrill ride.

photos by Wayne Karl

A Behanding in Spokane
Profiles Theatre
ends on December 4, 2011
for tickets, visit Profiles

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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