'Inishmore' Slits A Deep Vein Of Black Comedy

John Lescault, left, and Matthew McGloin in the black comedy at Signature.
John Lescault, left, and Matthew McGloin in the black comedy at Signature. (By Scott Suchman -- Signature Theatre)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Looking for a way to refresh yourself? How about settling into a nice, warm bloodbath?

A gloriously macabre immersion awaits you at Signature Theatre, courtesy of the depraved souls behind "The Lieutenant of Inishmore," a riotous comedy that, of all the crazy things, milks Irish terrorism for laughs.

The diseased minds include that of the Anglo-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, author of "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" and director of the film "In Bruges," who takes us to the quaint and rustic Aran Islands for a giddy spot of brain-splattering. (Not even the pets and livestock are spared!) His more-than-willing accomplices are a fine director, Jeremy Skidmore, and an eight-member cast that expertly unloads on us the play's ever more outrageous comic artillery.

Staged with remarkable technical polish in Signature's intimate, illusion-defying second space, "Inishmore" is far and away the most entertaining non-musical that the company has produced in years. A word to the faint of heart: It's crude, it's noisy, it's messy in there. Which of course is the only way to send up a history of pointless carnage.

The pleasure of the piece is the manner in which it makes a farce of violence and, after all the mayhem subsides, builds to one last, brutally funny joke: The ending is McDonagh's own final winking swipe at the conventions of the well-made play. (How, in fact, the dramatist achieves his Grand Guignol design gives new meaning to the term "cutting edge.")

McDonagh returns frequently in his plays to black-comedy depictions of rural Ireland, where his imagination finds pastoral beauty festering in a pool of savagery. In "Inishmore," which ran on Broadway for several months in 2006, the country's politics don't play much of a part in the ghoulish chain of events; although the program says the setting is present day, the characters seem stuck in a time when the Troubles in the northern counties have not yet been quelled. Or maybe, it's that the playwright believes they're eternal.

The play's plot concerns a sadistic terrorist -- so homicidal that he even terrifies the IRA -- hightailing it home to Inishmore at some distressing news. For though he blithely tortures people, Padraic (Karl Miller) harbors a soft spot for Wee Thomas, whom his own wary father (John Lescault) gingerly informs Padraic is feeling poorly. That Wee Thomas is a cat -- and a lot worse off than "poorly" -- will set in motion a series of twists leading to a wild, Sam Peckinpah-style rendezvous at Pop's cottage, laid out in all its ramshackle splendor by set designer Daniel Conway.

McDonagh's humor is a wondrous mix of the sick and sublime. He gets that woebegone cat by the tail and never lets go. (Animal lovers, relax: No furry critter comes to harm in the commission of this insanity.) His knack also extends to the bizarre traits of his characters, from a dimwitted neighbor (Matthew McGloin) more focused on salvaging his hideous red tresses than saving his life, to a teenage wannabe hit woman (Casie Platt), who is hellbent on hobbling the beef industry by disabling the local cows.

These nut jobs could be unbearable if not handled with care, with a clear idea of the Irish stereotypes that the dramatist is making fun of. Skidmore tunes skillfully to McDonagh's channel and, starting with Miller's trigger-happy Padraic, guides the actors to moments of sparkling comic payoff. For the delivery of one absolutely pivotal line, for instance, a deliciously shabby Lescault gives a scene its justifiable kick.

McGloin and Platt should guarantee themselves a lot more work, thanks to their wonderfully fertile portraits of the strange things nourished in the Irish soil. (McGloin's playing-out of his character's retrieval of a forgotten object in the cabin is a laugh-out-loud act of inspiration.) The production's restlessly risible spirit extends to the contributions of Jason Stiles, Tim Getman, Michael Glenn and Joe Isenberg, portraying the various thugs and miscreants who cross Padraic's path.

Miller is becoming something of a specialist in the placidity that masks madness; some theatergoers will recall that he played one of the high-school killers in Round House Theatre's "columbinus." In "Inishmore," he underplays the lunatic element, which makes Padraic's gruesome multitasking -- he takes phone calls while performing his terrorizing day job -- all the funnier.

"The Lieutenant of Inishmore" revels, too, in a dim sum of opportunities for stage blood to be spilled, any of which could, if not executed well, plunge the production into lameness. While costume designer Kathleen Geldard and lighting designer Dan Covey achieve satisfying results, it's the pinpoint bullet-pings off the walls and the spurts of red, well, everywhere that give this evening its professional finish. Whoever the blood wranglers are, they should get curtain calls of their own.

The Lieutenant of Inishmore, by Martin McDonagh. Directed by Jeremy Skidmore. Sound, Mark Anduss; fight choreography, Dale Anthony Girard; dialects, Leigh Wilson Smiley. About 1 hour 50 minutes. Through Nov. 16 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Cambell Ave., Arlington. Call 703-820-9771 or visit

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