Review: The Gamm's Deliciously Dark HANGMEN

Through November 26th.

By: Nov. 06, 2023
Review: The Gamm's Deliciously Dark HANGMEN
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The trouble with a Martin McDonagh play performed at The Gamm, is that it’s inevitably going to be too good.  McDonagh is a master of inky black comedy, and The Gamm have now presented five of his plays over the years, so it’s been fascinating to watch Gamm regulars find new places in the McDonagh-verse, and really lean into the sinister aspects of these plays.  However, for the person who has to write a review of this nearly-flawless show, it’s a somewhat daunting experience.  How do you describe a show so dark using only positive adjectives?  If McDonagh reads this review, will he dismiss it as hackneyed fluff?  Thankfully, he will never read this, so I can say unequivocally–this show is great, go see it.

England outlawed capital punishment in 1965, which ended the career of professional hangman Harry (Steve Kidd).  He’s retired into his next act as the owner of of a pub in Northern England along with his wife Alice (Karen Carpenter) and 15-year-old daughter Shirley (Abigail Milnor-Sweetser), and has amassed a crowd of hangers-on who love to hear stories of the good old days of being able to hang people.  One of Harry’s last executions was a man named Hennessy, who died protesting his innocence.  Harry is resolutely convinced that Hennessy was guilty and deserved his fate, but the appearance of a strange new bar patron named Mooney (John Hardin) forces Harry to consider that the person who actually committed the murders Hennesy was executed for may still be out there, and may want some attention.

Gamm regular Steve Kidd (A Skull in Connemara, The Pillowman) is an excellent choice for Harry.  Kidd’s effortless likeability serves his character’s need for attention and hero worship, but his character is also a blowhard who isn’t nearly as smart as he thinks he is, and who has a big chip on his shoulder about being only the “second best Hangman”, forever in the shadow of a man named Albert Pierrepont, played by a delightfully pompous Jim O’Brien.  Kidd juggles all these distasteful traits handily and still manages to make the audience invested in his and his family’s self-preservation.

The most sinister character is certainly John Hardin’s (Bad Jews) Peter Mooney.  Mooney is frequently described, by himself and others, as menacing, and that is the perfect word for him.  Hardin walks on set, and completely takes over.  His character rarely says anything that’s directly insulting or socially inappropriate, but he still comes off as not quite right.  His voice booms a bit too much, his manners are slightly off-putting, he’s impatient with others and he uses wordplay as a cudgel to unnerve people for reasons that don’t seem clear.  He’s also not “from around there”, and leans into the suspicion other characters automatically feel when they hear his accent.  This character could come off as cartoonishly evil, but Hardin plays it perfectly.  You do not know what he’s going to do next, but he seems like he’s masterminding every scene he’s in, even when it’s very clear he’s not in control.

The scene between Mooney and Harry’s 15-year-old daughter Shirley is particularly well-executed.  Shirley is an awkward, shy girl who has to pull pints in her parents’ pub and listen to her dad hold court with the local morons while her mother berates her for being too moody. Abigail Milnor-Sweetser, in her Gamm debut, imbues this character with a sweet naivete that could come off as annoyingly simple, but instead she feels like an incredibly real 15-year-old who wants to act older than she is, but doesn’t quite know how.  In a pivotal scene that seems to have come right out of a Guide to Grooming Naive Teens, Mooney slowly breaks down her natural defenses by convincing her that he understands her in a way her parents never could.  This scene works both in the script and physically as Director Tony Estrella initially positions these two characters at opposite sides of the pub, and slowly they come closer and closer together until Shirley is thoroughly ensnared by Mooney, and the audience is forced to spend intermission fretting about what comes next.

As the days get shorter, it’s time to lean into the darkness, and there is no finer way to do that.  Christmas cheer will be here soon enough, but right now is a great time to wallow in the shorter days and revel in some intricate dialogue, magnificent sets and deeply flawed characters portrayed by outstanding actors.

Hangmen runs through November 26th at The Gamm Theatre, 1245 Jefferson Blvd, Warwick, RI 02886

Photo: Foreground: John Hardin (Peter Mooney) L to R:  Karen Carpenter (Alice), Jack Clarke (Bill), John Cormier (Charles), Bruce Kaye (Arthur), Abigail Milnor-Sweetser (Shirley) Stairs bottom to top: David Ensor (Clegg), Steve Kidd (Harry)

Photo By Cat Laine


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