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BWW Reviews: THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN Makes Comedy of Cruelty

There's a bit of an inside joke that the entire audience is in on in director Michael Grandage's engaging revival of Martin McDonagh's dark comedy, The Cripple of Inishmaan. It comes at the suggestion that a film director would rather cast an able-bodied actor to play a crippled character than hire an actual crippled person to play the role.

Daniel Radcliffe and Sarah Greene (Photo: Johan Persson)

I'll leave it to others to debate the issue of casting opportunities for differently-abled actors, but the fact remains that, in today's theatre economy, a peculiar play like McDonagh's is not likely to enjoy a Broadway run without a movie star attached.

But despite playing the title role, the evening is not a star vehicle for Daniel Radcliffe, though he certainly does a fine job as part of the nine-member ensemble that originated this production in London. This play about a community is also performed as one.

Premiering in 1996, and produced twice Off-Broadway since, Inishmaan is a work of fiction inspired by a real-life event. In 1934, Hollywood director Robert J. Flaherty (Nanook Of The North) arrived at neighboring island Inishmore to film his documentary, The Man of Aran. Intended to show how the inhabitants of the isolated islands survived using traditional means over modern ways, parts of the film were staged to increase the dramatic content and present the locals in a more appealing manner. In turn, McDonagh's arch comedy satirizes quaint rural stereotypes with abrasive and downright cruel humor.

Pat Shortt and June Watson (Photo: Johan Persson)

Radcliffe's character, known by all as Cripple Billy, walks stiff-legged and has only one useful arm. He's an orphan, kept after by the two dotty sisters who run the general store, Eileen (Gillian Hanna) and Kate (Ingrid Craigie). Referring to themselves as Billy's aunties, the two speak with an amusing melodic give-and-take as they discuss cows or talk to stones.

The boisterous fellow known as Johnnypateenmike (Pat Shortt), the town gossip who considers himself as a bit of a town crier, has been warned by the local doctor (Gary Lilburn) to keep his ailing mammy (hilariously stone-faced June Watson) away from alcohol, but he's keeping her well-imbibed in an attempt to get rid of her.

Lonely Billy, who has never been kissed, has a crush on red-headed Helen (nasty dynamo Sarah Greene), who delights in physically abusing members of the male sex, particularly her dim-witted brother, Bartley (Conor MacNeill); gleefully cracking eggs on his head.

Billy sees a way of escaping this depressing world with starry-eyed dreams of fame and fortune when he finds out that Flaherty and his crew are filming nearby, but one should never expect a Hollywood ending from the author of The Pillowman and The Beauty Queen of Leenane..

The unique quality of The Cripple of Inishmaan is that McDonagh's comedy never shies away from jokes at Billy's expense ("Poor Billy'll never be getting kissed... unless it was be a blind girl."), and yet the audience needn't feel guilty for laughing. In such a depressing and isolated location, laughing at the misfortune of others is one of the only sources of amusement. For them, misfortune a common bond.

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