It is no secret that Matt LaChiusa, the artistic director of the American Repertory Theater of Western New York - ART of WNY - loves plays with plenty of quirk, off-the-wall stories that enrage or enthrall, shock or surprise. Some gore, maybe. Matt would have been at home back in the 1920’s at the Grand Guignol Theater in Paris where horror was central: blood, brutality, disfigurement, insanity, blindings. Matinees on Sunday.
So it probably was a no-brainer when someone suggested “A Behanding in Spokane,” Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s first “American” play, as his acting troupe’s latest production. The tale is that of a guy named Carmichael - a racist, a homophobe, a misogynist, among other things - who lost his hand some years ago to a pack of thugs and has spent the ensuing years looking for it. “A Behanding in Spokane” follows his latest search, notably Carmichael’s dealing with a pair of con artists who say that they have the appendage, fingers intact. I mean, what’s not to like about a story like this?
McDonagh’s plays have been seen in Buffalo before, notably at the Irish Classical Theatre: “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” and “The Cripple of Inishmaan.” McDonagh, 47, is often mentioned as one of the world’s greatest living playwrights. His plays have been nominated for awards and prizes, including the macabre “Behanding” when it bowed on Broadway in March of 2010. The man has street-cred.
So, this strange, seedy and revolting play is perfect for ART of WNY and its acting space, one reached these rainy, grungy nights by an alley walk and a side door in an extension of a building housing the iconic Sportsman’s Tavern. For the rest of May, the stage is a motel room that would make Norman Bates proud. Sociopath Carmichael, losers Toby and Marilyn and the disturbed Mervyn, the “receptionist,” are already there.
Carmichael has agreed to meet Toby and Marilyn - an interracial pair of scammers - because the two small-time drug dealers claim that they have the missing limb. For $500, Carmichael can be reunited with the long lost hand. Things go awry almost immediately, a shot rings out, an explosion is threatened, a suitcase is opened - Carmichael has quite an impressive collection of human hands inside - and wacko Mervyn drops in the room to expound on the lives of monkeys in captivity, mass shootings and a wide range of fantasies. There is real menace here. Creepy, too.
McDonagh has written these four desperate souls into this one situation - and the room gets awfully small - but it’s apparent that society hasn’t listened to any of them very much, if at all. They have these “frailties,“ theorizes director LaChiusa. And they are on full display here, occasionally and unexpectedly disclosing softer sides before lapsing back to what they know best: intimidation, violence, hatred, revenge and cruelty.
This quartet from America’s underside provides laughter at times. The nervous kind.
The language is David Mamet times ten, some of it gratuitous but rhythmical nevertheless. F-bombs, the N-word, all in descriptive combinations aimed at equal-opportunity victims. Amazingly, there are funny moments. Nasty, but funny.
LaChiusa has chosen a fine cast and he has them working at high speed, allowing no cartoon characterizations, keen at underscoring what appealing times exist, adept at emitting cringe and running with it. Thomas LaChiusa is again superb - his work in Arthur Miller’s “the Crucible” a season or two ago, is still lauded. As Carmichael, he’s perfectly despicable; Candice Kogut and Shabar Rouse are Marilyn and Toby respectively, a slimy couple, made for each other; well-played, physical roles. Stalwart Nick Lama is Mervyn, the wild-card in all of this, delusional - dangerously so - whose mediation skills are suspect.
In its absurdity, “A Behanding in Spokane” is often nasty. Ah, but not to worry. The play is from ART of WNY after all, where sunshine and darkness live side by side.
“A Behanding in Spokane”
3 stars (out of four)
Dark comedy at ART of WNY, 330 Amherst St. Through May 27. 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Information at 697-0837 or firstname.lastname@example.org (email). Tickets: $20 general admission, $15 students/military, $10 Thursdays.