Couple things. Christopher Walken's got nothing on Van Quattro. More about that in a sec.
If you have avoided live theater lately because you think it's boring and the plays are too long, Second Thought Theatre's season-opening production of Martin McDonagh's A Behanding in Spokane will change your mind. Get there now. The theater is small (just 56 seats) and the play and its run are short, so don't dilly-dally.
Behanding, starring Quattro as the man with no hand, bestows 90 minutes of darker-than-dark comedy that starts with a jolt and doesn't let up. There's a game of dodgeball played with body parts. There's a candle burning atop a can of gasoline. A suitcase is unzipped and things fly out of it that you never want to lay eyes on at arm's length. (I screamed.)
A Behanding in Spokane
A Behanding in Spokane
Continues through January 26 at Bryant Hall (next to Kalita Humphreys Theater), 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd. Call 866-811-4111 or visit secondthoughttheatre.com.
There's not a moment in this play when you're not completely caught up in its wacky, disturbing tension. And it's wonderful.
McDonagh is the Anglo-Irish writer known for twisted comedic miseries like The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Pillowman (both have been done at Kitchen Dog Theater), which wring laughs, improbably, out of plots about people driven to violence by loneliness and mental illness. A Behanding in Spokane is McDonagh's newest play, done on Broadway in 2010, and his first to be set in the United States.
This one is different from his earlier work — breezier, faster paced, with a tone of heightened emotion set by a main character who doesn't show any. The play begins, as good movies do, with the action already well under way. A middle-aged man, Carmichael (Quattro), sits alone onstage, slumped at the end of a flea-bag motel bed. He looks sad, almost teary-eyed. Details come quickly into focus. He has a right hand but his left arm ends in a nub. A silver cross hangs from a chain around his neck. He's dressed all in black. Suddenly there's a noise from the closet. Muffled screams. Carmichael rises, pulls a handgun from his coat pocket, opens the closet door and fires one shot. The noises stop. Carmichael's facial expression never changes.
The pace quickens from there. Carmichael phones his mother and leaves a rambling, overly polite message for the old lady. Then the desk clerk, a squirrelly young man named Mervyn (Drew Wall), comes to the door of room 17.
"Was that a gunshot earlier?" Mervyn asks Carmichael.
"Was what a gunshot?" deadpans Carmichael.
"The sound of a gun," says the clerk, "being shot in your room."
Mervyn is nosy and chatty. He might also have a bit of a death wish. During a mid-play monologue that feels like the playwright hits a pause button on the mayhem just to let us breathe for a moment, Mervyn talks to the audience about his dream of dying in a schoolroom massacre or maybe he'd like to be the guy who saves every other kid from dying. He hates his boring job as a motel clerk, but he's on probation (for what crime, we never find out). He also wants his own personal gibbon. A monkey. As a friend.
McDonagh toys with us throughout Behanding, which, you should also know, is mostly about Carmichael's 27-year search for his missing left paw. Some "backwoods bastards" took it from him and had the nerve to wave goodbye with it as they drove away. Now he travels the "filth lots and flea alleys of this sad, decaying nation" placing ads offering a $500 reward for its recovery.
Also visiting room 17 are a couple of small-time weed dealers (David Jeremiah and Barrett Nash) claiming to have the hand. Carmichael inspects it and, in a speech that makes liberal use of the N-word, declares it the wrong race. Feeling scammed, Carmichael sets up the jerry-rigged gas bomb and leaves the two young con artists handcuffed to radiator pipes as he goes out for a bit. In his absence, Mervyn reappears, taking his sweet time about snuffing out that candle as he teases the sweaty, handcuffed couple.
In his directing debut for Second Thought Theatre, Alex Organ — known until now as one of Dallas theater's best young leading men — creates a thrilling roller-coaster ride out of the rise and fall of the nutty tension in this play. Deconstructed, the script is silly — too absurd to be farce, too funny to be pure noir. It's Waiting for Godot meets The Maltese Falcon meets The Hangover. But McDonagh has such a blast with language, all that talk of gibbons and gunshots, and Organ and his cast let it tick along with just the right degree of suspense, you can't help but climb on.
There are lots of layers of danger set up by the playwright that could be tricky if not done right. Organ and his techies have made sure that the gas can bomb looks real enough to make us worry. (Of course, it's not real, but suspending belief is part of the fun here.) The actors underplay, never allowing naturalism to slip into over-exaggerated hysteria (Jeremiah is especially fine at that). When they're scared, we're scared. It's all hilarious and horrifying. We feel as trapped in that motel hell as they do.
In the New York production, Carmichael was played by Christopher Walken. It's a role designed for an idiosyncratic actor, and it fits Van Quattro like one made-to-order glove. He understands the peculiarities of McDonagh's dialogue, with its strange pauses and strings of obscenities. Quattro, so great in last season's Superior Donuts at Theatre Three, even has to carry on a long phone call in this play, as Carmichael works up a throbbing rage at his 90-year-old mother for poking around in his porn collection back home. The phone call is a hacky trope in the theater but Quattro gives this one as many colors as a soliloquy from Hamlet. You actually feel sorry for Carmichael during it and start to understand why he finds reasons to travel.
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Drew Wall is ideal for Mervyn, a role played by Sam Rockwell in New York. Wall is a handsomer, younger version of Rockwell. And a better actor in this or any play. He also designed and built the set, which is so sad-motel authentic, you worry about bedbugs.
Jeremiah and Nash have the toughest roles, attached by their wrists to those pipes, movements limited to how far they can stretch their limbs. Nash bears a strong resemblance to Zooey Kazan, who did the part on Broadway, and she's a snarling little firecracker. (And will have the STT stage to herself soon in the one-woman My Name Is Rachel Corrie.)
In a dark play like this, the only letdown is the lighting by Kenneth Farnsworth, which is too bright to convey noirish shadows in such a skeevy motel setting.
For everything else, a big hand. Two.