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Theatre in Review: Hangmen (Golden Theatre)

Alfie Allen, David Threlfall. Photo: Joan Marcus

Martin McDonagh has been specializing in his own brand of bloodstained comedy for a quarter of a century now, so it's probably inevitable that the blood might get a little tired. That's the main trouble with Hangmen, a relatively restrained -- for McDonagh -- thriller that, despite a juicy premise and some golden laughs, never delivers the electric charge of his best work. Notably, this is the first time the playwright can be caught recycling ideas from past works. It may be time for one of the theatre's master confidence men to replenish his bag of tricks.

The first scene is prime McDonagh, introducing Harry, a Lancashire-based executioner, on the job. (It is 1963 and capital punishment is still practiced in the UK; in his own little world, Harry is something of a star.) His latest charge, Hennessy, is about to be hanged for murder; terrified and proclaiming his innocence, the young man must be pried away from his bed and dragged, screaming, to his fate. Typically, McDonagh plays the horror for laughs: Harry punctiliously points out that the correct term is "hanged," not "hung" -- a fine distinction lost on Hennessy during his final minutes of life. And Harry's attempts at calming Hennessy leads to this exchange:

Harry: And I've told ya, if you'd just relax, it'd be all the easier for ya.

Hennessy: It won't be easier for me. I'll be dead.

Harry: Everybody says you're a good lad.

Hennessy: I am a good lad.

Harry: We know you're a good lad.

Hennessy: What are you fucking hanging me for then?!

It's a dazzling opening that, climaxing with an unnervingly staged hanging, has one wondering what McDonagh can do to top himself.

As it happens, not much. The action jumps ahead two years. Hanging has been outlawed and Harry now runs a pub, aided by his brassy wife Alice and "mopey" teen daughter Shirley. When not handing out pints, Harry enjoys blabbing to a journalist about his career; he also bristles at any mention of his longtime rival Albert Pierrepoint, who, to Harry's unceasing ire, claims a longer list of victims. (Having dispatched a brace of Nazis at Nuremberg, Albert possesses an unfair advantage that, Harry jealously insists, should come with an asterisk.)

Into this den of boozy self-satisfaction comes Mooney, a trendily dressed young Londoner with a subtly truculent attitude. His posh looks and eerie self-possession instantly disturb the room, causing one of the regulars to try a little gay-baiting; then again, Mooney isn't beyond making offensive remarks about Blacks and Jews. (He is also the master of the strategic pause; really, you could insert him into any Harold Pinter play and nobody would be the wiser.) Sipping his pint and snacking on peanuts, he suavely stirs things up -- among other things, offering the guileless Shirley transport to the mental institution where her friend Phyllis has recently been consigned. Then, without warning, Shirley vanishes, and, suddenly, ugly possibilities proliferate: Is Mooney responsible? Is Shirley's disappearance connected to the second anniversary of Hennessy's hanging? Was the wrong man hanged? Is the killer still at large?

It's a lot to consider, but McDonagh is just getting started, adding to the mix a possible hostage situation, assorted betrayals, and a chance for Harry to practice his skills at home. Suspense, however, is not on the bill of fare: Hangmen entertains when harvesting comedy from Harry's bizarre profession but as a thriller it never really gets going. Part of the problem is its casting. In the play's New York debut at Atlantic Theater in 2018, Johnny Flynn was a much more menacing Mooney, giving each line a creepily insinuating twist; at the Golden, Alfie Allen is sufficiently cheeky but lacking a coiled undertone of evil. The already overextended scene in which Mooney practices his seductive arts on Shirley (Gaby French, sweet but not sufficiently vulnerable) should have one fearing the worst; instead, it has one feeling its length.

To be fair, Mooney's motivations are at best vague, at worst opaque, and the plot is overstocked with red herrings. Stripped of his literal gallows humor, Hangmen, has a surprisingly disappointing second act, in part because of its structural resemblance to McDonagh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore; both feature professional killers and apparent crimes that unleash pointless acts of revenge. It's a bait-and-switch technique that is brilliant the first time but dulls with repetition.

Keeping Hangmen watchable, the rest of the cast mines McDonagh's coal-black humor with gusto, especially David Threlfall as the red-faced, barrel-chested, gasbag Harry. (Comparing methods of execution, he opines, "Guillotine's quick but guillotine's messy and French. Who'd go for that in Durham? No one. And who's going to clean up mess after? Heads bouncing round. I'm not going to clean it up after. Warders? They've enough on their plate, the poor sods.") Tracie Bennett, her bleached-blonde hair swathed in a nicotine haze, her voice like a rusty hinge, is equally zesty as Alice, especially when regretfully informing Shirley that, no, she's not even beautiful on the inside. Andy Nyman is desperation personified as Harry's shifty former associate. As the dreaded Albert, John Hodgkinson makes a show-stopping entrance just when there's a crime to be concealed. Special mention goes to Richard Hollis, John Horton, and Ryan Pope as Harry's thirstiest customers, all three musing on their potential alcoholism while thoughtfully downing their pints.

Director Matthew Dunster, who clearly has a way with actors, also gets spectacular work from his designers. Anna Fleischle provides three incomparably seedy sets, some of which appear in the oddest places thanks to a clever automation system; her chef d'oeuvre is Harry's pub, its stale-beer atmosphere accentuated by Joshua Carr's lighting. (Fleischle's costumes have the right period feel; she strikes a strong stylistic contrast between Mooney and the other men.) The sound design, by Ian Dickinson for Autograph, includes some sinister early-'60s rock guitar chords in addition to some hanging-related effects.

The biggest problem with Hangmen is that McDonagh's characters are too thin, his plot manipulations too obvious. The characters in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Cripple of Inishmaan, and The Lieutenant of Inishmore are frequently awful, but one develops a strong rooting interest in their fates. Because the people in Hangmen don't seem to matter, it's difficult to work up any sense of peril; the play can make you laugh but it rarely gives you the jitters. For once, this accomplished playwright leaves the audience dangling. --David Barbour

(26 April 2022)

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