Anyone amused by gallows humor has huge entertainment in store, courtesy of playwright Martin McDonagh — although the word “courtesy” may never be appropriate for his work. The gallows humor couldn’t be more literal in the bluntly titled Hangmen, McDonagh’s latest work now defiantly in-our-face Off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theatre Company.
The play, which bowed in London in 2015, arrives in NYC during a hot year for McDonagh, who wrote, produced and directed the film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, now up for seven Oscars, including Best Film and Best Original Screenplay.
Those seeing Hangmen after seeing McDonagh’s sizzling flick won’t be surprised by its violence and streaks of revenge. Indeed, those who have followed him since his plays of the 1990s and ’00s — The Beauty Queen of Leenane, A Skull in Connemara, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Cripple of Inishmaan, The Pillowman — expect those ingredients.
But other thing about McDonagh is that, more often than not, the head-knocking and blood-spilling in his plays often comes packaged with high hilarity.
Such scripted legerdemain is the case with Hangmen, which gets right to the nitty-gritty when Joshua Carr’s lights rise on Anna Fleischle’s set of a hanging cell somewhere around Oldham, England. The titular hangman, Harry Wade (Mark Addy), is to do his business with a young man, surname Hennessy (Gilles Geary), who puts up a prolonged battle against the noose, proclaiming his innocence. Hennessy’s fight isn’t victorious; he drops through the floor.
Nov. 9, 1965 brought about the end of hanging as a form of the death penalty in England. Which put Harry — known as the “second busiest” local hangman — out of a job. Fleischle’s prison walls now shift, and we see Harry in his next one: pub owner, vying for prominence with another pub owner, Albert Pierrepont (Maxwell Caulfield), formerly the area’s foremost hangman.
Still dictatorial, still smarting from losing his former position, Harry presides over the beer pumps with his loyal, protective wife Alice (Sally Rogers), and his plump and pouting 16-year-old daughter, Shirley (Gaby French). The regulars over whom he lords include alcoholic Bill (Richard Hollis), good-natured Charlie (Billy Carter), older and deaf Arthur (John Horton), local police inspector George Fry (David Lansbury), easily gulled journalist Clegg (Owen Campbell) and Syd (Reese Shearsmith), who was Harry’s obsequious aide in the pre-1965 days.
Things would undoubtedly remain business-as usual, endless pints quaffed, were it not for the introduction of the innuendo-spouting London interloper,He calls himself Peter Aloysius Mooney (Johnny Flynn) and snazzily dressed (by Fleischle, who is also the costumer). With no shortage of smarm, he implies that he knows something about Hennessy’s wrongful hanging. He slathers menace however he sees fit, his technique down pat.
Then he makes a play for Shirley, who disappears. Harry assumes that Peter must have her stashed somewhere — a possibility seemingly confirmed when Peter has a scary tete-á-tete in an Oldham café with the cowering Syd.
All comes to a head, so to speak, when Peter oozes into the pub while Shirley is still missing and Harry, his hangman propensities coming to the fore, attempts to learn her whereabouts, leading to one of the playwright’s most heated and sparky conclusions. (At the end of Three Billboards, McDonagh may leave up in the air the outcome of certain characters. No such mystery here.)
So what is McDonagh up to with this dark escapade? Yes, he sees the world as volatile and laughable at the same time. Irish-born but London-raised, he used his early burst-of-energy plays to send up Irish stereotypes. With Hangmen, he journeys to North England, spots the same stereotypical lushes bellying up to the bar, and has some yuks on them.
But he also presents a society inured to violence, where violence not only ends badly but without corrections. Inspector Fry gets to utter something about turning a blind eye. The perhaps-innocent Hennessy denies ever meeting the young woman that supposedly he murdered. Even dim, innocent Shirley is a narrative pawn. It’s as of McDonagh gets his playwriting kicks by showing the world as he spies it. His contemporary, the Irish scribe Conor McPherson, deliver realistic takes on compulsive drinking among the lower-class English and Irish. McDonagh spins on them merrily. It feels as if he gets his jollies saying to the spectators:
Here’s the world, in its comic and tragic aspects. Make of it what you will. Just remember that you’re likely to laugh at it, recoil from it and switch back again many times over. That’s life, and nothing to be done about it!
Remember, I wrote that Hangmen is also extremely funny. I base this remark on having seen the play in London (and reviewed it for the CFR), where the audience laughed in all the right places. This is not the case here — at least not with the audience of which I was part.
I submit that the sea change has to do with the Lancashire accents on display by both the five actors brought over from the original production and the American actors replacing their London counterparts — every one of them worth their weight in gold. Maybe the effect would be different were the accents lightened up? Maybe not? Maybe the thick accents take the edge off McDonagh’s latest stage achievement? Maybe not with enough of an edge to undermine this exhilarating play? Maybe.