A Behanding in Spokane
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 11, 2010
The gleeful, gratuitous gross-out violence of A Behanding in Spokane made me think of "The Itchy and Scratchy Show," though this new play by Martin McDonagh lacks the satiric intent of Matt Groening's fake cartoon. There's no doubt about it: McDonagh outdoes himself here in terms of sheer over-the-top anti-social invention—and that's saying something, given the playwright's previous forays into hands forced into pots of boiling water (The Beauty Queen of Leenane) and decapitations (The Lieutenant of Inishmore). But where the nastiness in earlier plays is rooted in something (characters, places, ideals), in Behanding it just seems to be presented for its own sake, a silly scary goof of a play.
The good news is that the on-stage purveyor of said goof is Christopher Walken, more animated and energetic than in his last stage outings (The Seagull, The Dead), and for good reason. This is a whale of a role for a man of Walken's talent and temperament, and he seems to be having a grand time playing it.
His character is a man named Carmichael. When we meet him, he's in a cheap motel room, leaving a message for his mom on the phone and coping with the noise emanating from the closet. (A gun is involved.) Soon, Carmichael explains himself, in the first of several vivid, detailed monologues that McDonagh has crafted, seemingly to order, for this particular actor. I don't want to give too much away; the gist is that he was "behanded" when he was 17 (in Spokane, Washington), and he has spent pretty much all of the subsequent 47 years searching for the hillbillies who did the deed, and for the missing hand. The man in the closet—Toby, played by Anthony Mackie—and his girlfriend Marilyn (Zoe Kazan) are trying to sell him a hand for five hundred bucks. It turns out not to be his hand, however...and the game, as they say, is afoot.
Running interference and generally interfering is Mervyn, the slacker guy who works at the motel's reception desk. He's played with relish by Sam Rockwell, especially in a fourth-wall-breaking monologue that's odd, rambling, and entirely off-kilter as it drifts from topic to topic—scoring speed, gibbons in the zoo, high school massacres. Mackie and Kazan do what's required of them, but their characters are essentially foils for Walken and, to a lesser extent, Rockwell. Walken disappears for a while, during which these three hold their own nicely, but when he returns for the final scene of the play, it's tour-de-force time. His phone conversation with Mom (he finally reaches her) is one you won't forget for a long time. And in the nervous-laughter-inducing big moments and all the small interstitial ones he carries on with a brio and style that are hard to match.
If only the play felt more consequential! I really don't have a clear handle on what A Behanding in Spokane is supposed to be about, beyond painting portraits of a couple of grotesquely obsessed losers. The play, just 90 minutes long, still overstays its welcome, and in at least one area—its politically incorrect depiction of Carmichael as an unredeemed racist—it doesn't so much push buttons as simply annoy. McDonagh seems less comfortable with American archetypes and dialect than with those of his native Ireland; the decision to set the play in America seems designed mostly to accommodate his American cast (and Walken uses a weird accent that sometimes sounds likes New Orleans and other times sounds like his trademark Hollywood drawl, so the specific locale is beside the point).
John Crowley's direction serves the playwright and the cast well, as do all of the design elements—especially the naturalistic set by Scott Pask. Professional as all the aspects of this production are, though, it's Walken's show from start to finish.
Behanding isn't for everybody; I'm not really sure it was even for me. But if you're a fan of Mr. Walken or Mr. McDonagh you will probably want to see how much fun the two of them have delivering this oh-so-tall tale of chopped-off hands, possibly broken ankles, and potentially shot-up or blown-up people.