When A Behanding in Spokane opened on Broadway three years ago, I could not have been more primed for it. Studio Theatre’s 2007 Joy Zinoman-directed production of Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman had tattooed my brain with its haunting exploration of pressing and insoluble questions, at least one of which occupies Oprah Winfrey and Wayne LaPierre alike: Does fictional violence beget real-life violence? The production was in the middle of its run when the author of several violent student plays and stories murdered 32 people at Virginia Tech, a tragedy that underlined the immediacy of the play’s concerns. The year after that, McDonagh wrote and directed his first feature film, the wickedly funny In Bruges. Then came The Behanding, a McDonagh play starring Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell (both of whom would have big roles in his second feature, Seven Psycophaths), plus Anthony Mackie, hot off a memorable turn in The Hurt Locker.
Had McDonagh titled his 2010 comedy Two Psychopaths and Two Retards, it would’ve offered some hint of the glee with which its characters throw around cruel, reductive epithets: fag, cunt, and—especially—nigger. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the show, because Walken and Rockwell were just so much fun to watch up close (though not as close as in the movies, obviously). But I walked out wondering how Mackie’s deeply troubling, almost minstrel-show characterization had happened. His harebrained pot dealer was the first nonwhite character McDonagh had written, and Mackie’s howling, bug-eyed performance struck me as amplifying substantially the elements of racial caricature already present on the page. Had he been directed to carry on that way? Or was he trying to subvert the whole enterprise by calling out its bigotry with a performance that would barely have raised an eyebrow in Birth of a Nation?
Shuffling through these three-year-old memories on the occasion of the Keegan Theatre’s middling local premiere of Behanding, I think I probably gave that Broadway production too much credit. Whether the play is racist or not (the New Yorker’s Hilton Als averred it was), it clearly has nothing of interest to say on the subject of bigotry. Much more importantly, it just isn’t very good.
Oh, sure, this farce about a profane drifter’s attempt to buy back the hand he lost 27 years ago from a pair of self-sabotaging morons is verbally clever and intermittently shocking. Lots of plays that strive mightily for Significance fall far short even of this. When the drifter, Carmichael—named, one assumes, after the sadistic one-handed songwriter of “Stardust,” “The Nearness of You,” and other splattery standards—gets around to explaining how his hand was severed (via train) and by whom (“rednecks”), the origin story is a flawless diamond of absurdity. But the realization that cleverness is all that’s on offer here dawns awfully early, and it’s hard to stay invested after that.
This production doesn’t have the benefit of a pair of magnetic oddball character actors to put it over. Keegan Theatre founder Mark A. Rhea, greasing his hair and face to step into the role originated by Walken, makes Carmichael seem less a dangerous lunatic and more like a burned-out, middle-aged Jeff Spicoli. He seems more likely to fall asleep watching cartoons than to hurt anyone, which creates a serious suspense deficit. As the pair of small-time dealers who try to scam Carmichael for $500, Laura Herren and Manu Kumasi both struggle to bring something to these shrill parts for which McDonagh has only contempt. Kumasi fares considerably better than Anthony Mackie did on Broadway, displaying a verbal dexterity late in the show that finally brings McDonagh’s dialogue up to the punk-rock tempo at which it starts to make sense.
Behanding is McDonagh’s first play set in America—“Small Town America,” to be precise, just to show how little he gives a shit—but the fleabag hotel room that contains the whole of the action could be in any English-speaking country, as long as it’s one where people reflexively punctuate their sentences with “Isn’t it?” and “Didn’t I?”, a British habit observed by no American I’ve ever met. (McDonagh grew up in London and set his first half-dozen plays in Ireland.)
The set for that hotel room is a grubby cube of stained and peeling wallpaper surrounding a bed that looks like it’s about to scurry away on the backs of thousand roaches. It was designed by Colin Smith. He also directed the show, and on the weekend I saw it, played the role of Mervyn, the hotel’s embittered parolee desk clerk. (The part is usually performed by Bradley Foster Smith, who was away attending a family funeral.) Mervyn’s the real unstable element in this equation, a nosy and eerily calm sort even when he’s looking down the barrel of Carmichael’s revolver. He’s the character given the godlike power to freeze the others while he indulges in a bizarre direct-address monologue about a monkey he once knew.
Understudy, schmunderstudy: Smith was fantastic in the part, oscillating between jittery and unflappable. Funny how this four-hander about a one-handed man almost ends up feeling like a one-man show.
4000 Miles By Amy Herzog Directed by Joy Zinoman; At Studio Theatre to April 28
Joy Zinoman, the creative force who founded the Studio Theatre and ran it for more than 30 years before stepping down in 2010 (she directed that unforgettable 2007 Pillowman, among dozens of others), has returned to the sturdy institution to helm 4000 Miles, Amy Herzog’s 2012 Obie Award winner for Best New American Play. This gentle, keenly observed family drama tracks a warming of relations between an independent octogenarian and her 21-year-old grandson. This kind of minor-key piece will almost always sound like a treacly snore summed up in a sentence or two, but I tell you it’s a consistently funny and rewarding diversion boasting a standout central performance.
That would be Tana Hicken as Vera, a proud lefty who’s been fighting loneliness and early signs of dementia in the years since the death of her husband—a philandering but influential writer and thinker in the American Communist party. When her crunchy, cell-phone abjuring grandson turns up unannounced at her enviably rent-controlled Greenwich Village apartment having just completed a Seattle-to-Manhattan bicycling trip, she’s surprised but grateful for the company.
Vera and Leo, her grandson (a rangy Grant Harrison), make a winning pair, both more likable when they’re together. In their self-righteousness and in their fundamental decency, they’re utterly believable as members of the same family. “Jet fuel!” Leo scolds Vera when she has the temerity to offer him a snack. “There’s no such thing as a local banana!”
And a fascinating family it is. Leo’s got baggage with his adopted sister (whom we hear only at the other end of a brief web chat), and he isn’t speaking to his mother at all. Vera’s conflicts are more interesting: Her friends are dying off, her vocabulary is evaporating, and she’s finding her proud progressive credentials as out-of-date as her rotary-dial landline phone and moldering yellow pages. (She can’t stop herself from calling Leo’s athletic, outdoorsy girlfriend “chubby,” for instance.) A pot-fueled late-night chat with Leo leads her to volunteer that neither of her husbands ever satisfied her sexually; Leo isn’t repelled by the disclosure at all. When this family isn’t not talking to each other, they really talk to each other. To eavesdrop on them is no small pleasure.