Friday, January 11, 2013
Theater review: You read it correctly, A Behanding in Spokane is creepy, dark fun
Hand it to 'em: This black comedy is funny and twisted.
When I first read the title I thought it was A Be-HEAD-ing in Spokane, which for a Martin McDonagh play, sounded about right.
After all, he wrote Kitchen Dog's The Beauty Queen of Leenane which I reviewed recently, and that play was certainly bizarre enough!
When I realized that it wasn't "head" but "hand" I thought, "Oh, good! This will be even darker then I expected!" And it is!
For his first play in several years (he's been busy writing screenplays) and his first set in America, the Irish Mr. McDonagh takes us on an outrageous and hysterically funny ride with four characters in a hotel room and a suitcase filled with (spoiler alert –check out the title).
You know how the Bond movies all start with some wildly exciting opening scene before we get to the credits?
Well, Mr. McDonagh takes a cue from that genre and has one of the most attention-grabbing openings I've seen in ages: A man missing his left hand sits on a bed in a dingy hotel room somewhere in small-town America, everything is quiet for a moment, and then we hear a scuffling noise from the closet.
If you have a dark sense of humor, what happens next is totally unexpected and shocking and funny at the same time.
And then when he walks over to the telephone and calls his mom, well, the tone of the play is established, and we're off and running!
Early on, McDonagh sets forth a sort of inside joke with the hotel "receptionist" giving a list of outrageous scenarios about people checking in.
Such as men in cloaks with harpoons, Nigerian rollercoaster salesmen or giant talking pandas and saying, "Where's a story like that gonna go?"
The playwright then, of course, takes us on an even more strange and wonderful journey than could be imagined.
In this case, first-time director Alex Organ has been greatly aided by his canny casting of four terrifically talented actors. Van Quattro as Carmichael is incredibly sad and incredibly funny at the same time. His is a face that has traveled a thousand miles and every one of those miles filled with stories you want to hear about – and maybe some you'd really rather not. He illuminates volumes just by sitting on the bed and looking into space while layers and layers of emotion and history struggle and seethe beneath that seemingly blank façade. He can communicate more with a look than many actors can with a page of dialogue and his two long telephone conversations with his mother are set-pieces of superb acting. Bravo Mr. Quattro!
Drew Wall (fresh from Beauty Queen of Leenane) is a funny guy. Give him a character like this that he can really sink his teeth into, and like a dog with a really great bone, he just won't let go! From the moment he comes into the room, he lights up the place. You can feel the audience anticipating what's to come with his entrance and he doesn't disappoint. The wonderful thing is that he also finds the many moments of serious concern and depth of feeling in his long monologue about being a hero and saving gibbons, among others.
The unfortunate part of the speech (at our current time) about mass school shootings is handled well and the emphasis on being a hero saves it. Watching Mr. Wall's face during Mr. Quattro's second `phone call to his mother is a reflection of our own interest and involvement.
He's not upstaging the other actor but truly listening and responding honestly. If acting is about listening and responding, he's got it down pat. What a pleasure!
Toby is played by David Jeremiah and boy, does he have a great time! From the moment he's dragged out of the closet to the moment of his exit he sputters, he threatens; he careens wildly from one idea to the next and keeps the energy spinning. I did wish he'd slow down sometime because I didn't want to miss anything he said. All of it was so funny and so well done that I wanted to savor every second.
The role of Marylin, played by Barrett Nash, is underwritten compared to the men's roles but that doesn't stop Miss Nash from taking what's there and running with it.
She goes from angry to scared to seduction with wonderful alacrity and it's a pleasure to watch.
Her attempt to seduce the "receptionist" is outstanding because it's so funny and desperate at the same time. She rounds out this stellar cast.
The set by Mr. Wall is just so depressingly right! The spare, badly carpeted, beige painted room with a paint-by-numbers picture on the wall looks just as you imagine it should in this poor run-down hotel. The suggestion of a ceiling which ends up reflecting the police lights at the end is a terrific idea that finishes off the room and works perfectly in that final moment. My God, the sad things that have happened in this room! Lights that support and illuminate the mood by Kenneth Farnsworth, ambient and ominous sound design by John Flores that is especially well chosen, and character-defining costumes like the all black outfit for Carmichael by Kory Kent, fill in and complete a picture that seems to us correct in every respect.
Directing his first professional play, Alex Organ is to be congrat- ulated for putting together a tight-knit, well-paced production with first rate performances.
He gets levels from his team of actors that help to make the show so much more than just a comedy or a dark mish-mash of events playing out on one plane. The tone and feel for the show seem absolutely right to me and with only four actors, two of whom are constrained to remain in one spot for a long time, Mr. Organ somehow manages to keep our interest and place the focus where it needs to be. Hopefully we'll be seeing more of his work not only as an actor but also as director. He deserves the opportunity.
I loved this show and would encourage anyone who loves good theater and wants an evening of entertainment that also provides something to think about to hurry and make their reservations right away. Sure, there are instances of the "N" word, the "F" bomb and other things that might offend, but after Django Unchained, et al, this is like listening to a kindergarten primer being read aloud! There are also a few instances of Irish syntax that sound a little off for American ears and the play may not be Mr. McDonagh's best, but it is certainly a crowd pleaser and I suspect will prove popular with many producing groups. Spend ninety minutes with people from whom you would normally run in the opposite direction and you won't regret it!
Let's give `em all a hand. They deserve it!
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