A Behanding in Spokane at Profiles Theatre | Theater review
Darrell W. Cox has menace but not enough madness in the central role of Martin McDonagh’s half-handed black comedy.
Martin McDonagh’s latest is the Irish playwright’s first to be set not in Connemara (as in A Skull in) or Leenane (The Beauty Queen of) or Inishmaan (The Cripple of) or Inishmore (The Lieutenant of) but in the United States. Profiles’ Chicago premiere opens on a familiar sight: a fantastically creepy Darrell W. Cox.
Twice this fall, to accommodate a pair of emergency eye surgeries undergone by Cox, Profiles postponed its production of A Behanding in Spokane rather than recast the role. This suggests the theater and the director, Rick Snyder, considered Cox—the most consistent presence on Profiles’ stage over the years—uniquely indispensable to its take on McDonagh’s script, just as Christopher Walken was regarded as crucial to the play’s Broadway debut last year.
Unfortunately, as Walken’s reportedly did in New York, Cox’s unsettling presence fails to entirely enliven a script that falls surprisingly flat for much of its first half. Cox plays Carmichael, a one-handed man on a psychotically single-minded mission to recover what he says was taken from him, unprovoked, by a gang of hillbillies who held his hand down over a Spokane train track as a passing locomotive lopped it off. The gang then retrieved the paw and, escaping the scene, waved good-bye to him with his own hand.
The numerous gaping holes in that tale, which Carmichael tells early on to his prisoners Toby (Levenix Riddle) and Marilyn (Sara Greenfield), add fuel to our uneasiness with Carmichael’s presence: Could this even possibly be true? Does Carmichael truly believe his own story, or is it some kind of insane justification for decades of collecting severed human appendages?
Toby and Marilyn are smallest-time con artists who’ve severely underestimated their intended prey, offering Carmichael a hand they’ve stolen from a local museum. Like Toby, the hand is black, allowing for the avowedly racist Carmichael to unleash a deadening torrent of the N-word.
Cox, as Profiles audiences know, has “menacing” down. But he doesn’t bring to Carmichael the same kind of loopy unpredictability that’s Walken’s calling card. Cox’s Carmichael seems, if anything, too measured in his disappointment, too reasonable in his sadism as he handcuffs Toby and Marilyn to the radiator and leaves a slow-burning candle in the open mouth of a gasoline can beyond their reach. Cox drains the comedy from the situation.
Thus Toby and Marilyn’s screeching, terrified reactions seem equally justified and less than entertaining. The heightened level at which Snyder’s production spends its first half takes the Profiles aesthetic from assertive to assaultive. The sustained frantic shouting in the small space begins to ring in your ears; Greenfield in particular edges toward shrill.
But McDonagh’s biggest trip-up is the show’s fourth character, a hotel clerk with an apparent death wish. He seems like little more than a convenient plot device throughout, at no fault of his portrayer, the appealingly mealymouthed Eric Burgher. (It’d be interesting to see Burgher as Carmichael in a few years.) The clerk, Mervyn, gets one terrific monologue at the play’s midpoint, but like the character, it feels shoehorned in.
Perhaps Behanding’s weakness comes from its lack of one of McDonagh’s great strengths in plays from the Leenane trilogy to The Pillowman: corrosively sour-sweet familial relationships. The play’s best dialogue is a one-sided one, as Carmichael has it out with his batty and batty-making mother on the hotel phone, suggesting a pairing as entertaining as Inishmaan’s Johnnypateenmike and his Mammy.