The Cripple of Inishmaan
nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
December 21, 2008
There's a great deal of humanity in Martin McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishmaan, currently receiving a production courtesy of the Atlantic Theater Company and Ireland's Druid Theatre Company. Humanity in a McDonagh play? How is that possible? It's not really found in the play itself (which is a lesser work in McDonagh's storied canon), but in the wrenching staging by Garry Hynes and the performances by the superb ensemble.
Cripple is set on the island of Inishmaan, Ireland in 1934. Robert J. Flaherty has arrived on the nearby island of Inishmore to film his documentary "Man of Aran." "Cripple" Billy hears of this and wants instantly to be part of it, so after much convincing he travels with a few others—the short-fused Helen, her brother Bartley, and BabbyBobby, the boatman—to Inishmore for his shot. To the disbelief of everyone, including his adoptive guardians Kate and Eileen, he actually gets a screen test in Hollywood.
The original production, directed by Jerry Zaks at the Public Theater in 1998, came to town on the heels of McDonagh's hit The Beauty Queen of Leenane. It wasn't as well-received as Leenane; most reviews attributed the flaws to Zaks's overtly cartoonish staging.
Hynes lets the material speak for itself, with no gimmicks or cartoons. She's a frequent McDonagh director and knows just how to mine the material for the inherent darkness, sadness, and dark comedy. In a production as good as this, though, the flaws in the material are more apparent. There's a meandering quality to the script. The red herring in the second act is just confusing. But, in a production as good as this, it's just as easy to look past the flaws.
There's not a weak link in the company, all of whom are giving carefully calibrated performances. Leading them in the vigorously physical title role is the astonishing Aaron Monaghan. Monaghan's work is truly honest, alternately lovable, pitiful, and disgusting, but with the most innocent of intentions. After watching him drag himself around the stage, one can't help but wonder how much physical therapy he's receiving.
Kerry Condon is bewitching as Helen, Billy's one shot at love who doesn't want to be seen with him. David Pearse and Laurence Kinlan give nice comic performances as JohnnyPateenMike, the town gossip who's trying to off his mother through drink, and Bartley, respectively. Marie Mullen and Dearbhla Malloy are heartbreaking as the aunties.
Davy Cunningham's lighting is evocative, and the tableau of the final moments is stunning. The sets (folding in and out) and costumes, designed by Francis O'Connor, are appropriately drab and gray. The fight direction, by J. David Brimmer, is solid, though the big, revelatory fight isn't as realistic looking as it could be.
Being an early McDonagh play, it's easy to see various themes and characters that will appear in his subsequent works. The humor, of course, stems from the darkest of revelations. Inishmaan's feisty, violent Helen is an early sketch of Mairead in The Lieutenant of Inishmore, (a role Condon played at the Atlantic prior to its Broadway transfer). However, compared to a violent, bloody play like Inishmore, this one is tame. Ish.
Suffice it to say, this production, a holiday present to New York City theatergoers, makes a case for the play. And given the track record of Atlantic-to-Broadway transfers, it wouldn't surprise me if we see The Cripple of Inishmaan get his day in Midtown rather soon. Well deserved.