The sound of one hand clapping? Hear it at Second Thought Theatre. “A Behanding in Spokane”, a bleak, black comedy by highly regarded Irish playwright Martin McDonagh marks his first work set in the United States. It feels like an audition piece for a feature film or cable television show where his rough-hewn, off-kilter characters repeat words like “fag”, “nigger “ and “cunt” from a strictly stereotypical American perspective, ad nauseam. As in enough to make David Mamet’s ears smart. Those who admire the absurd comic possibilities mixed with revelation of human truths that permeate McDonough’s Irish-set work will find this play lacking, while its pace and punch-line humor retain some of his signature style.
Don’t believe me? Here’s what Ben Brantley said of the play’s New York production in his March 2010 NYTimes review: “His hapless, bored and obsessive characters, natural liars and fantasists all, may require the insularity of a small, isolated, self-mythologizing world to flourish and self-destruct credibly. As reconceived for “Spokane” these prototypes start to seem alarmingly like figures from a conventional Hollywood caper comedy about dopey, foul-mouthed crooks who keep tripping over themselves.” Then he praises the familiar film and stage shtick of venerated creepy character actor Christopher Walken as the production’s featured item.
In his directorial debut with this Second Thought Theatre production, versatile regional actor Alex Organ makes predictable, novice choices that do not maximize the play’s comic potential and fail to use its strong cast to best advantage. Even given the play’s life and death threat situation, scant dramatic tension exists. A sense of blithe community theatre energy prevails, where direction, design concept and logical response to script work at odds but remain happily aligned. Set in a seedy hotel room, the play’s action turns on the mysterious unpredictability of its main character Carmichael, a sociopath with a most peculiar obsession and a vengeful streak the size of the Grand Canyon. The actor playing this role should exude imminent, barely contained violent tendencies and inspire terror in the other characters, from his whispered musings to gun-waving shouts. Funny, at times: scary stuff, the more she goes. It’s clearly not going to end well. Van Quattro, so capable of wide range and depth as an actor, seems constrained to play Carmichael on two limited levels: stoic and stony-faced or shouting and ranting. His quasi-threatening presence doesn’t connect with or drive the other actors’ reactions well. The objects of his character’s threats, a young con artist couple, played by David Jeremiah and Barrett Nash, provide the script’s comic relief and are the vehicles whereby the playwright incorporates his “trendy” vocabulary words into the dialogue. Blocked awkwardly and linear or clawing the air effusively and speeding through lines, Jeremiah and Nash seem meagerly invested in their characters’ dire circumstances. Just delivering lines. Just wriggling and wiggling predictably when handcuffed to the room’s far wall and doused in gasoline. Never once did I sense their characters believed their lives were in any real danger. An example of odd directorial choice: more than once the pair stands next to the room’s unlocked exit door wailing about being held prisoner, while Carmichael fails to block their logical retreat, either bodily or with his threatening presence. So why don’t they just flee? Drew Wall gives the most compelling, intriguing performance as the psycho-movie style flophouse “receptionist” and horny busybody. His precise, absurdly laconic line delivery reflects thorough understanding of the true comic potential of McDonagh’s language as his commitment to character creates the strongest dramatic tension in the play.
With a less than sterling script, “A Behanding In Spokane” makes a tough challenge for a directorial debut. Experienced directors like Terry Martin or Robin Armstrong would have pounced hard on the work’s black humor and helped the able cast achieve the tension needed to make the play’s rambling, wobbly arc cohesive. You’ve got friends in it? Alex Organ is your favorite actor and a really cool guy? By all means, give the Second Thought team a hand, or two, and support local theatre….
“A Behanding in Spokane” runs through January 26, 2013. Performances at Bryant Hall on the Kalita Humphreys campus, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd.
Tickets: 2TT.co or (866) 811-4111.