Martin McDonagh had a comet-like rise to prominence from 1996 to 2008: four Tony nominations for best play, a short-subject Oscar for "The Six-Shooter" and an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay ("In Bruges").
But he has written just one play over the last eight years, "A Behanding in Spokane," and it's a minor chunk of rock from the tail of that comet. It lacks the heat, speed and gut-clenching humor of his earlier work. Though he'll turn 41 this month, it suggests he could become a parody of himself.
It's the first of his plays set in America, yet it doesn't feel American: There's no sense of place in the setting, accents, dialogue or descriptions of past events, except for the clunky use of an epithet that rhymes with "trigger" (another of McDonagh's favorite words). I've read or seen all his published plays, but never before did I fail to understand what he wanted us to think or feel.
The title refers to an incident 27 years ago. A teenager named Carmichael was set upon by six "hillbillies" who forced him onto a railroad track in Spokane, Wash., cutting off his hand. He has spent all the years since searching for it, buying hands from con artists, and has trapped two of the dumbest in his hotel room.
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Are we to be contemptuous of Carmichael (Russell Rowe), who has wasted his life in a mad quest to regain a useless appendage "because it's mine"? Are we supposed to link racism and mania because he spews anti-black invective and wants to kill this mixed-race couple who have cheated him?
Are Marilyn (Elise DuQuette) and Toby (Derrick J. Hines), who have the collective I.Q. of a chipmunk, meant to represent decay in modern American society? And what are we to make of Mervyn (Robert Lee Simmons), the obsessive hotel clerk who gibbers about gibbons and seems unconcerned that his hotel might go up in flames with him in it?
McDonagh's other characters, however dim or deranged, have always wanted to accomplish something that seems terrible important to them and frequently misguided to us.
But except for Carmichael, nobody here seems to want anything: They banter and bicker in the room where he holds them captive, as if all outcomes from escape to incineration had the same value. The finale, where Carmichael steps out of character, suddenly stops the play with a thud.
McDonagh's plotting is sloppy, too. When Carmichael leaves for half an hour, chaining Marilyn and Toby to a radiator next to a telephone, it doesn't occur to them to call for help. Marilyn and Toby can see Carmichael is white yet try to sell him a black man's hand as his own. (This is meant to be funny but isn't. And can someone tell me where the underground market for severed hands gets its vast supply?)
The cast at Carolina Actors Studio Theatre, working under the direction of Paige Johnston Thomas, certainly gives its all.
Hines bravely undertakes one of the most stereotyped stage parts of the last half-century for a black man, a jiving and double-talking fool who curses up a storm. DuQuette plays an imbecilic shrew as well as one could ask, and Simmons makes his role a tour-de-force of exuberant craziness.
Rowe plays Carmichael with quiet exasperation, which is a reasonable choice, but not the supreme confidence of a madman. (I assume Carmichael is supposed to be deranged.)
The actor almost seems troubled by gaps in the plotting and reversals of behavior, as if he isn't sure what McDonagh wants of him. That might make three of us, if so, because I'll bet even the playwright can't really explain "Spokane."