What do you get when you combine violence-as-humor, ironic use of racial epithets, casual misogyny, and the kind of relentless profanity that's the sure sign of a lazy writer who can't be bothered to come up with original verbal shock tactics? You get Martin McDonagh's new play, A Behanding in Spokane, and, in the case of this critic, eyes rolled all the way into the back of your fucking head.
Irish playwright Martin McDonagh followed his acclaimed Aran Islands Trilogy with a foray into Hollywood. In Bruges, written and directed by McDonagh, was one of my favorite films of 2008. But, back on Broadway for the first time in four years, McDonagh has taken a major misstep with the black comedy A Behanding in Spokane, his first work set in America. And what did the celebrated playwright pick up in the New World? A bad case of the affliction that saddles too many writers these days: acute Tarantino-itis.
Christopher Walken stars as the behanded Carmichael (affected much?), a man who lost his left hand forty-seven years ago to a gang of cruel hillbillies in a railroad yard. Having sought his missing digits ever since, he meets a pair of swells (Anthony Mackie, recently seen in The Hurt Locker, and Zoe Kazan) who claim to have in their possession that long lost hand. If your eyes aren't rolling already I can't help you. In Bruges worked so well because despite its leading with what appear to be the standard-issue assassins-on-the-run type, there's a lot of heart and emotion behind the characters' motives. It was more than just a po-mo gangster black comedy: it was a moving character study. But Behanding's characters never get beyond type. The play is too self-conscious by half: oh, I get it, the ironic use of racial epithets is there to question our ironic use of racial epithets, the dubious back story is there to question our acceptance of dubious back stories, and our smart-as-a-whip menial laborer is there to set us straight on that, by gum!
The self-consciousness of the writing is met by Walken's own self-consciousness — his delivery is forced, his timing mannered, as if instead of putting his signature voice and timing into a developed character, he's competing with the writer's (and director John Crowley's) notion of what a Christopher Walken character ought to be like. Sam Rockwell (Moon) does somewhat better as the hotel clerk/receptionist; he seems to have walked off the set of a particularly violent episode of The Andy Griffith Show, and that's as good as angle as any to take with this material. But the material does favors for no one. least of all the would-be hand-dealing couple, an African American and a blonde who are subject to nearly all of the aforementioned ironic epithets.
I'm no prude; I enjoy Tarantino's writing and directing, but his example has begotten too many wannabees who believe that Attitude guarantees success. Previous work shows that despite the splashes of violence that mark him a post-Tarantinoite, McDonagh has an original voice and an ear for the down-and-out milieu of his native land. For his take on American culture, which could have been a provocative meditation on violence and capitalism, it's too bad he resorted to mere pastiche.
Admittedly I saw the play in previews, but barely a week before it opens in earnest; I can't see the producers coming in to make any major changes. And why should they — the audience I saw it with, despite skewing heavily to the Golden Girls set, laughed at all the right places. There's no accounting for taste, but if you do like A Behanding in Spokane, maybe we shouldn't get the early-bird special together. The play opens on Broadway March 4th.