A Behanding in Spokane is enfant terrible Martin McDonagh’s first play to be set in America, and stars Christopher Walken, the one celebrity who would seem the perfect fit for the Tarantino-of-the-stage’s mix of startling menace and hilarious absurdity. But the multiple Tony-nominated and Academy Award-winning Irishman’s latest project—despite the presence of always finely tuned Walken and a nothing less than revelatory Sam Rockwell—is minor McDonagh. And that’s being generous. Without those two tent-pole presences holding it up, Behanding would fold like a cheap house of cards.
A work of scam artistry, the show itself revolves around Walken’s Carmichael, a walking corpse of a man whose half-century search for his missing left hand has led him to a couple of scheming weed dealers played by Anthony Mackie and Zoe Kazan, looking to make a buck off a pilfered body part from a natural history museum. The play takes place in Carmichael’s Motel 6-style room—on a set as unobtrusively trashy as that of the hotel in Lynch’s Wild at Heart—and opens with a gunshot followed by a phone call to mom. (Did I mention McDonagh’s the QT of the stage?) The situation soon escalates into the hostage-taking of both Mackie’s Toby and Kazan’s Marilyn, both characters so one-note and underdeveloped that the talented actors have nothing to work with. Indeed, Mackie is stuck in an endless loop of theatrical hysterics and double takes while Kazan seems to be playing a caricature of a prom-queen-gone-bad. (Did the usually nuanced director John Crowley, who received a Tony nomination for McDonagh’s The Pillowman, develop a tin ear from all those blanks being fired?)
The saving grace, of course, is Rockwell’s snooping desk clerk Mervyn. Though song-and-dance man Walken, with his offbeat cadence, speaks with a musicality suited to McDonagh’s Irish roots, it’s Rockwell who is actually the performer perfectly molded to fit a McDonagh play. Even more so than Walken, Rockwell grounds the over-the-top hijinks of Behanding with his transparent vulnerability. The centerpiece of the show is a monologue delivered by Mervyn that segues from drunken visits to the zoo to school shootings with an effortless candor so melancholically comedic it hurts. Through Mervyn we get a glimpse of what McDonagh’s play could have been—and of what all his other plays from Off Broadway’s The Cripple of Inishmaan to Broadway’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore have been.
Instead, as McDonagh struggles to find his American rhythm, we get stale impropriety and yawn-inducing usages of the “n” word and homophobic jokes, un-PC territory that Neil LaBute mined on these shores decades ago. (When a character fearing an explosion cries, “We’re gonna go up like Waco!,” the biggest shock is the playwright’s reference to an incident that many young, 24/7 news cycle-loving Americans would be hard pressed to even recall.) At its core, Behanding is a one-trick pony punchline, an extended SNL skit. The sight gags are laugh-out-loud, but the piece itself isn’t rooted in any deep organic place. The saddest thing about Behanding is that it lacks the playwright’s unique gift for the poignantly funny. Sure, McDonagh is still pushing the envelope—but to where?
A Behanding in Spokane is now playing at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre (236 West 45th St.) in New York City and continues until June 6. Schedule: Mon at 8pm, Tue at 7pm, Wed-Sat at 8pm, Wed and Sat at 2pm, and beginning March 8, Tue at 7pm, Wed-Sat at 8pm, Wed and Sat at 2pm, and Sunday at 3pm. Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.