BWW Reviews: Exploiting A BEHANDING
An interesting, potentially moving idea is buried inside A Behanding in Spokane. Martin McDonagh’s play, which runs through November 4 at Fells Point Corner Theatre, features a man named Carmichael, who 42 years ago was victimized, for no apparent reason, by a gang of “hillbillies.” Since that fateful day, Carmichael has devoted his life to two things: revenging himself on the hillbillies, and finding his left hand, which they severed from his body.
Carmichael’s quest takes him to a seedy motel room in small-town Ohio, where two drug dealers—a pretty blonde named Marilyn and her boyfriend, Toby—claim to have found his hand. They will sell it to Carmichael for $500, but they are clearly scammers and Carmichael is not fooled. He threatens and tortures them, along with the motel’s nosy receptionist, Mervyn. At last he explodes: “Do you know how many people think I’m ridiculous? And all because I want what is mine?”
For a moment, I thought I had located the pulsing heart of this bloody, messy farce. The sheer absurdity of Carmichael vanished, swallowed up in his authentic rage, and every prior laugh at his expense seemed cruel and petty. I felt a sudden sympathy for this lonely man, and so, it appeared, did McDonagh.
How wrong I was. McDonagh scrapes every joke he can from the slimy bottom of the barrel—porno mags titled Finally Legal! school shootings! the “N word”!—and hurls them at four of the most brainless characters I have ever encountered on a stage. And when the jokes run out, the black guy can always say “muthafucka” again. Following his brief revelation of humanity, Carmichael finds himself on the receiving end of a phone call from his racist harpy of a mother (she has found his porno mags), and we can no longer ignore McDonagh’s only true purpose: to humiliate his handless anti-hero and anyone who stumbles upon him. Such cruelty is far worse than Marilyn’s or Toby’s or even the hillbillies who brutalized Carmichael years ago—their excuse is stupidity. (Why hillbillies, Martin?) McDonagh is not stupid. He is a hypocritical bully.
The last time a writer’s hypocrisy so angered me was during Single Carrot Theatre’s 2009 production of Killer Joe, another nasty excuse to kick those who are down under the guise of “edginess.” At least the eponymous hit man of Tracy Letts’ play frightens us; McDonagh’s Carmichael is a clown. Watch Christopher Walken, who originated the role on Broadway (clips are available on YouTube)—he might as well be guest-starring on Saturday Night Live for all the depth he gives the part.
At Fells Point Corner Theatre, director Howard Berkowitz and his cast take their cues from Walken. The actors—Jeff Murray (Carmichael), Eric C. Stein (Mervyn), Emily Sucher (Marilyn), and Mike Smith (Toby)—have their moments; a punch line lands, a setup delivers, a plot twist jolts. But inevitably everyone reverts to the show’s default mode: loud and one-dimensional. Nothing builds; nothing can be established—let alone developed—when every few minutes everyone seems to forget what just happened. Severed hands are flung around the set—designed and constructed with loving detail by Mark Steckbeck and Kevin Heckathorn—like the rubber props that they are. Characters on the verge of escaping step back from the door when another character asks them a question. And then stay to debate the answer!
You may protest that McDonagh is not writing realism, but all plays—farce included—must be grounded in some form of logic. Characters must choose for compelling reasons—they can’t all be idiots all the time. Instead, I found myself questioning every turn—reluctantly at first (believe it or not, I wanted to give the show a chance), and finally to preserve my own sanity. Why does Mervyn persist in bothering a man who has just fired a gun? (Because he’s stupid.) Why doesn’t Carmichael ever kick Mervyn out of his room? (Because then McDonagh would have fewer opportunities to mock Mervyn’s stupidity.) Why does Carmichael, who grew up in the Pacific Northwest, have an accent on loan from Tony Soprano? (Because … I give up.)
I must confess that when I saw the show, my fellow audience members seemed on the whole to enjoy themselves. Taken out of context, much of the play is undeniably funny. Perhaps I should lighten up. As dramaturge Barbara Migeon writes in the program, McDonagh’s plays “may shock us, but they also make us laugh.” Where’s the harm in that? But Migeon also writes that the plays “shock audiences … not just to provoke them, but as the means of arousing visceral emotions that make [us] question moral norms.”
Here I cannot agree. To my mind, plays such as A Behanding in Spokane have no interest in honestly exploring moral questions. Rather, they exploit our fascination with human depravity, content to trade cheap thrills for laughs. Forgive me if I refuse to play along.
A Behanding in Spokane is playing at Fells Point Corner Theatre, located at 251 South Ann Street in Baltimore, on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 PM, and Sundays at 2 PM, through November 4th. Tickets are $12–$17. For more information, visit www.fpct.org.
Production photos by Ken Stanek