Martin McDonagh On Fire: In Charlestown And On The Screen

A Behanding in Spokane
Jeff Gill interrogates Greg Maraio in Theatre on Fire's production of "A Behanding in Spokane."

Just in time to get you into the holiday spirit, Martin McDonagh is back, guns blazing and epithets flying. If your sensibility is sensitive, the Anglo-Irish bad boy is here to trample on it with the Boston-area premiere of his play, “A Behanding in Spokane,” and his new film, “Seven Psychopaths.”

Cheery titles, eh? Actually they sort of are if you know McDonagh from his entertaining if scabrous plays like “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” or “The Pillowman” or his first feature film, “In Bruges.” All of them feature men (and the occasional woman) behaving very, very badly but with such a looney-tunes spirit that in its own, twisted way is quite captivating. It’s hard to be horrified when you’re in hysterics. There’s also an underappreciated sophistication at work – think Quentin Tarantino meets John Millington Synge. Or Quentin Tarantino with a brain.

There’s an underappreciated sophistication to McDonagh's work – think Quentin Tarantino meets John Millington Synge. Or Quentin Tarantino with a brain.

When I saw the play in New York I thought it needed the jaw-dropping Walken to succeed. The excellent Theatre on Fire production at the Charlestown Working Theatre (through Oct. 27) proves me wrong. For all the satirical jibes at Walken’s film acting, few people command the stage the way he does, but such command also means that when the brother from another planet was not onstage – for a good chunk of the play – things got boring.

In Charlestown, Jeff Gill brings a different dimension to the aging Carmichael, who has led a lifelong search for a hand that young thugs had shorn off by tying him down near an oncoming train. He’s presumably gotten even with them, but now is threatening the lives of two young people, a black guy and white girlfriend, who tried to scam him with a hand belonging to a black person, evoking a string of racial epithets along with gunfire, gasoline, and other paraphernalia suggesting that he would have fit right in with the seven psychopaths. The fourth charcter is Mervyn, a long-haired slacker nerd who’s also the receptionist.

If the charisma quotient isn’t as high as on Broadway, where Zoe Kazan and Anthony Mackie rounded out the cast, the chemistry is terrific among the four Charlestownies. Based on this and last year’s “Mojo,” one would have to conclude that director Darren Evans a) knows what he’s doing with actors, pacing and creating a tense atmosphere and b) has exquisite taste in edgy, contemporary theater. The more established Boston theaters, even the more established adventurous theaters, usually fight tooth and nail for McDonagh material, but all obviously took a pass on this stranger, less rollicking play.

Hats off to Evans and his cast for not only picking up the slack but finding a grace note or two in the story. It’s not always easy finding the moral center of an artist who eschews preachiness and stomps on anything resembling political correctness, but there is a moral center in McDonagh, which, along with a keenly developed sense of moral ambiguity, are ultimately what distinguishes him from Tarantino. Take a look at the Sunday Times Magazine interview with him on the subject.

Carmichael isn’t the first low life with a moral code in literature, but there is something particularly plaintive in Gill’s performance about the character’s insistence that the young men who caused him to lose his hand as well as the ones who scammed him were morally reprehensible and have to pay a price. Not that McDonagh is necessarily endorsing the methodology, but a painting of Captain Ahab on the wall (suggested by cast member Becca Lewis) underscores the ambiguity of the situation.

Still, McDonagh’s primary virtue is that he’s a magnificent storyteller, never more so than in his play, “The Pillowman,” where killings are carried out that mirror the central character’s obsession with modern fairy tales making Grimm’s look like Disney’s.

That storytelling ability is even more on display in the film, “Seven Psycopaths,” in which a screenwriter named Martin (hmm) wrestles with his story about seven psycopaths, a film he’s determined not to be a Hollywood shoot-em-up. A la Woody Allen’s “Bullets Over Broadway,” a real-life psychopath wants the story to follow a more traditional arc. The way that McDonagh’s film and Martin’s screenplay intersect gives new meaning to the word ingenious. And the way that Martin’s concern with morality, drinking, writing good female characters and all kinds of other things may or may not reflect McDonagh’s reminds me of another Woody Allen film, “Deconstructing Harry.” Walken, as he was on Broadway, once again leads the demand for a moral center in an ambiguous universe though as you might expect from Walken, it isn’t your grandfather’s moral center. Witness his lecture on what to call gay men, which I won’t give away.

This isn’t to say that McDonagh is closer to Allen in spirit than to Tarantino, just that there’s a lot more going on thematically and intellectually in his work than he often gets credit for. McDonagh is also a gifted film director – his use of contrast, flashbacks, absurdist humor, close-ups and other devices creates his own cinematic world that isn’t quite the one we live in. And he gets mostly great performances from folks like Woody Harrelson and Tom Waits, though Walken’s “Behanding” Broadway buddy, Sam Rockwell, is a little too goofy as Walken’s psycho buddy.

McDonagh isn’t for everyone. I went to a matinee where I was the only one out of 10 or 12 audience members laughing, with maybe one other chortler. They were probably worrying that I was psychopath No. 8.

No, just a huge Martin McDonagh fan.

This program aired on October 14, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

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Ed Siegel Critic-At-Large
Ed Siegel is critic-at-large for WBUR.



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