Phantom Whim

Carmichael (Christopher Walken), the main character of Martin McDonagh’s new play, A Behanding in Spokane, has spent the last 47 years searching for his left hand. However, an absent palm and five digits is nothing compared to what is missing from this play: purpose. Behanding, playing the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, finds Carmichael holed up in a dreary hotel room in an unnamed town. Marilyn (Zoe Kazan) and Toby (Anthony Mackie) are a couple of scam artists who have answered his online ad and said they have Carmichael’s missing hand. (He explains that when he was younger some bullies had the missing appendage severed by a speeding locomotive.) Unfortunately, the couple has been caught red-, er, black-handed, when Toby provides a hand clearly belonging to a man of another race.

Carmichael then holds Marilyn and Toby hostage in his dingy room while he leaves to investigate a lead Toby has provided; he has lit a flame working its way down to a tank of gasoline. As directed by John Crowley (A Steady Rain), there’s no Hitchcockian tension here, though. He plays Behanding for laughs, and as a result, the stakes feel quite low.

McDonagh’s earlier plays, like The Beauty Queen of Leenane trilogy, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, and The Pillowman (also directed by Crowley), were masterful works but punishing affairs. They were as lacerating for the audience as they were for his characters. But they also provided thoughtful social and existential comedy (so, too, did McDonagh’s overlooked 2008 movie, In Burges).

Behanding is, I suppose, best described as a black comedy. Marilyn and Toby never really seem in peril. Its tone is humorous instead of tense, and McDonagh seemingly intends for his play to be taken at face value. Compared to his other plays, though, Behanding -- the playwright’s first American-set work – feels utterly lacking. Is he branching out, trying for something more commercial, or merely being lazy?

The play also suffers from a kind of identity disorder. It is unclear whether Crowley and McDonagh aim for realism or surrealism. Though both Marilyn and Toby sit handcuffed in the hotel room, a working telephone is within Toby’s reach. (In several humorous exchanges, Carmichael’s unseen mother calls on it.) If the show were aiming for realism, there would either be no phone or it should not work. And if Behanding skewed on the side of something more surreal, the play should emphasize that they know a phone is there but come up with contrived reasons not to use it. The current result makes the play feel unfinished and slapdash.

The excellent Sam Rockwell plays a fourth character. He’s Mervyn, the hotel’s desk clerk, who is just looking for an opportunity to save the day. I don’t know if Behanding was written specifically for Rockwell or Walken, but it certainly plays toward both actors’ irreverent acting styles. There are divergent effects, however. Rockwell specializes in playing disarming men-children, as in Choke and Snow Angels, so Mervyn is a perfect fit. But Rockwell tailors his performance to the character, making sense of the hotel employee’s quirks so that the audience understands where he is coming from when he is dealing with other characters.

Walken, on the other hand, plays vintage Walken here, and the effect is a distracting one. His shtick – tuff tawk and over-enunciation of odd syllables – has provided him with a lasting persona, but that persona can be a hindrance. It makes his performance feel like a caricature, and takes the audience out of the scene. Such familiarity with Walken’s demeanor also detracts from any threat the actor might possess in his scenes. His Carmichael makes one’s initial reaction one of laughter when one should be cowering. I would be interested to see how a different actor would approach this role. (It should also be said that Carmichael is offstage for a great deal of Behanding, and while he is, the play does not miss him.)

McDonagh saddles Kazan and Mackie with the play’s most thankless roles, though. The characters reminded me of half of the Scooby Gang; the two are so hapless one wonders how they ever thought they could pull off Behanding’s central scam in the first place. Mackie holds his own; he’s actually the only actor of the four who commits enough to making it look like his character might actually be in danger, and he does so while still embracing the play’s innate humor. Kazan, however, comes off as more amateurish. Her line delivery is manic and shrill. McDonagh intends for her to be alternately a clever operator and a damsel in distress, and I didn’t believe either persona.

It isn’t fair to penalize McDonagh for creating a play that is lighter than the rest of his oeuvre. In its defense, Behanding is diverting and will please anyone looking for a healthy dose of star power. Still, one cannot help but wish that beyond all the eccentricity, the show had something more to say.

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