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Theatre in Review: Hangmen (Atlantic Theater Company)

Johnny Flynn, Gaby French. Photo: Ahron R. Foster

Martin McDonagh, the playwright, is in danger of being eclipsed by Martin McDonagh, the filmmaker; even if you feel, as do I, that his latest film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, doesn't juggle its farcical and tragic elements with total dexterity, it is, in most respects, prime McDonagh, filled with plot twists you'll never see coming and providing abundant opportunities for Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, and Woody Harrelson, all of whom earned Oscar nominations. In contrast, Hangmen, his newest work for the stage, is a little bit poky and underpowered, wedding a surprisingly old-fashioned thriller plot to a vein of humor, about the business of execution; it might have seemed more outrageous a couple of decades ago -- before we laughed and gasped our way through the likes of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, and The Pillowman.

It begins on a vintage note, in 1963, in a prison somewhere in Lancashire, England, where an inmate named Hennessy is about to be hanged for murder. The young man isn't going quietly, however, and the struggle to get him into the noose is converted by McDonagh into pure black-hearted vaudeville: As Harry, the officious executioner, defends his reputation against his hated rival, Pierrepoint, and his punctilious assistant, Syd, corrects the victim-to-be's grammar (He is getting "hanged," not "hung," Syd points out), Hennessey cries out, in despair, "Hung by a rubbish hangman, oh, that's so me!" It's a grabber of an opener, combining frantic action with the playwright's signature gift for irritable and irresistibly hilarious disputes; we instantly want to know what it all means, especially what part Hennessey, who goes to his grave protesting his innocence, will play.

The action jumps ahead two years; hanging has been abolished by the government, which means Harry is out of a job. Well, one of his jobs: As the lights come up, he is holding forth in the pub he owns, refusing, rather theatrically, to give a quote to a local journalist. "I've always chosen to keep my own counsel," he says, repeating the statement so often that it is painfully obvious he is dying to tell all. I can't tell you too much about what happens next, except to note that sinister doings abound and the key elements include the young newspaper reporter who converts Harry's "no comment" into enough quotes for a small book; Shirley, Harry's "moody" and "mopey" teenage daughter; the sweaty, frightened, treacherous Syd; the confinement of an offstage character to a nearby mental institution; and the appearance of Mooney, a garrulous stranger who invades Harry's bar, ostensibly to rent the room upstairs but really to spread clouds of suspicion and fear. "Even when I try to be funny, I come across more as menacing," Mooney says, with not-quite resignation. Meanwhile, a key character disappears, a hidden alliance is exposed, and Harry falls back on his deadly skills, setting up an impromptu hanging in order to get to the bottom of things. And what, if anything, does all of this have to do with Hennessey's execution, two years earlier?

For once, McDonagh takes his sweet time setting up his situation, spending most of the first act introducing the extensive cast of characters and indulging them in boozy bar chat that isn't quite as funny as the author seemingly thinks it is. Events unfold slowly: A scene featuring Shirley and the mysterious Mooney is surprisingly drawn out and lacking in tension, even with its overtones of seduction, as is a surprisingly furious exchange between Mooney and Alice, Harry's wife. By the time, just before intermission, all the plot elements are in place, the act concludes on a rather muted note of menace. An Act II scene, in which Harry and Alice carry on, tending bar and pretending nothing is wrong -- when, in fact, they are tense with worry -- never builds to a pitch of suspense, and even when Harry starts practicing his killing technique at home, it raises very little gooseflesh.

Part of the problem, I think, is that Hangmen is populated by characters who aren't engaging enough to emerge from the onstage crowd. They aren't driven by sheer desperation, as are the simultaneously awful and sympathetic inhabitants of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, nor are they comically, haplessly dogged by the need for revenge, like the gangster-like terrorists of The Lieutenant of Inishmore. It's amusing to see Harry, who is used to puffing out his ample chest with pride, put at a disadvantage, but it's hard to care too much about what happens to this minor bully. Even finding out the truth about Mooney and his motivations, to the extent that they are made clear, proves disappointing. And the action -- including a farcical setup in which Harry's latest victim is set up on a makeshift gallows in the bar, hidden behind a curtain -- lacks the nerve-jangling shocks that kept one on tenterhooks while watching The Pillowman. Much of the play's humor, rooted in Harry's inordinate pride in his work and his rivalry with Pierrepoint, is lumbering and repetitive, especially his envy of Pierrepoint for having dispatched a score of Nazi war criminals. Next to most of the killers in McDonagh's rogues' gallery, Harry is really something of a pussycat. (There really was an Albert Pierrepoint, by the way, and he really did do away with a number of Nazis; such are the nuggets one picks up in this job.)

If Matthew Dunster's deliberately paced production doesn't make the most of the play's twists, he stages the opening scene with brio and he provides some clever, revelatory moments, especially when one of Harry's cronies raises the specter of alcoholism, an assertion that is instantly dismissed even as he and his mates all take long, thoughtful sips of their pints of beer. Dunster also obtains some memorable work from individual cast members, many of whom have been with the play since its debut at London's Royal Court Theatre. Mark Addy's plump, mustachioed Harry -- think Oliver Hardy, with a license to kill -- is a peacock-proud bureaucrat, ready to pontificate at the drop of a hat and possessed of a mean streak that credibly facilitates the play's calamitous events. Johnny Flynn -- rail-thin with an insinuating nasal drawl -- is insolence personified as Mooney, whose run-on speeches carry a multitude of creepy implications. Gaby French is a perfectly clueless cloud of blonde hair as Shirley, and Sally Rogers lends considerable gravitas to her scenes as Harry's increasingly worried wife (and Shirley's mother). There are also solid contributions from Maxwell Caulfield as Pierrepoint, whose hair, according to Harry, smells of death; John Horton as a deaf old duffer who must have every new development repeated, loudly, to him; and David Lansbury as a police inspector who wants nothing to do with Harry's illegal activities.

Anna Fleischle's set design takes a rather long time to transition between the first two scenes, but you can practically smell the beer on her bar set, which is lit to dim, smoky perfection by Joshua Carr. Fleischle also manages to tuck away a third location -- a greasy-looking diner -- in an unexpected location, and her costumes are perfect period creations. The sound, by Ian Dickinson for Autograph, includes some kicky surf-guitar riffs between scenes.

The finale is especially disappointing, coming from a playwright who specializes in saving his best twists for last. It's certainly ironic, but it lacks the thrill that sends audience members out of the theatre laughing and shaking their heads in amazement. Once you adjust to the rather thick North Country accents, it's a reasonably entertaining evening, but, coming from a playwright who has so often confidently mixed potent cocktails of laughter and shocks, it leaves us hanging. -- David Barbour

(6 February 2018)

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