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ATC's 'Inishmore' a bloody good comedy

Five years have passed since a new Martin McDonagh play was produced, and he's said in at least one interview that he's done with theater: He'd rather write and direct movies, which inspired him to pick up his poisoned pen in the first place.

If so, we must be satisfied with the rash of ironic, grimly funny and painfully cruel plays he unveiled between 1996 and 2003, four of which were nominated for Tony Awards for best play. (“The Banshees of Inisheer” is unproduced; McDonagh told The New Yorker it “isn't any good.”)

“The Lieutenant of Inishmore” was the last of those Tony nominees and the grisliest of all. One scarlet scene midway through Act 2 has two men, reprieved from their own deaths, sawing up corpses in a welter of blood. To admire the verisimilitude of the body parts in the season-opening production at Actor's Theatre of Charlotte isn't beside the point: For all the absurdity of the slayings and villainy, the author is onto something real.

Like most writers with a heritage divided between England and Ireland – Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw – McDonagh can turn a cold, analytical eye on The Ould Sod. He usually sees benighted, ignorant people unwilling to confront their own problems and shortcomings. The English sometimes make a convenient, distant enemy, never more so than in “Inishmore.” Yet even if they didn't exist, these characters would turn their rage and frustration on each other – as they do here.

Padraic (Brett Gentile), who's too unstable for the Irish Republican Army, has joined a splinter group called the Irish National Liberation Army. (Very apt, as every selfish creature in this play turns out to be a splinter group of his or her own.) But he insists on torturing the drug dealers who kick back money to the INLA, so even that gang dislikes him.

He returns to Inishmore to investigate the death of the only thing he loves in the world: Wee Thomas, a 15-year-old cat whose battered body has been discovered in the road outside his home. Donny, his feckless father (Craig Spradley), and Davey (Ryan Stamey), who's been accused of rolling over Wee Thomas with a bicycle, expect punishment. Mairead (Kristy Morley), a teen who romanticizes violence and “noble” rebellion, expects Padraic to make her a woman and a soldier. The INLA's Christy (Robert Lee Simmons) just expects to blow up this loose cannon.

Everyone at ATC, from director Chip Decker down to the designer of the cat corpse for the opening scene, understands the macabre humor of the play. Except for the urbane Simmons and the remarkable, wild-eyed Morley, though, the cast hasn't yet thrown itself into the madness with a whole heart; there's a tentativeness in spots, as if the actors were afraid to seem too disgusting or inhuman, and there's not enough real fear when Padraic looms over potential victims.

The terror may not fully have been tapped, but the laughs are. “It's incidents like this that do put tourists off Ireland,” says Donny in a rare moment of self-awareness that quickly passes. That kind of humor makes McDonagh's bleakness bearable for us – and maybe for the playwright, too.