Theater review

McDonagh's 'Cripple of Inishmaan': Fiendishly funny sendup of rural Irish life

"The Cripple of Inishmaan's" actors (including Dearbhla Molloy and Laurence Kinlan) infuse the characters with an exhilarating sense of grievance. (Mark Gail/the Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 10, 2011; 10:39 PM

That postcard in your head of bucolic Irish hamlets filled with charmingly eccentric locals? Martin McDonagh wants to trample it, shred it, grind it into the damp earth of Erin. His fiendishly funny sendup of rural Irish life, "The Cripple of Inishmaan," is being revived in a definitive production by Druid, the Galway theater company that has long championed his work.

It's at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater only through Saturday - another of those wham-bam visits that whets the appetite for more evenings like it. Under director Garry Hynes's mischievous guidance, the actors infuse McDonagh's characters with such an exhilarating sense of grievance that they seem to treat spite as a weapon of mass destruction.

The play is about the corrosive brand of claustrophobia that afflicts country life - particularly as a city-dwelling writer might perceive it - and how an ingrown culture can curdle the soul. More to the geographic point, McDonagh is targeting life on Inishmaan in the Aran Islands, a collection of remote, scenic rocks where the rugged denizens have for centuries been tolerating the punishing elements - and one another.

McDonagh, who's best known for his Euro-hit-man movie, "In Bruges," has churned out some electrifying work for the theater: "The Pillowman" and "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" being his best plays. "The Cripple of Inishmaan" revels in the mordant style of humor that is his signature; rarely has he devised characters as hilarious as the claws-out mother and son who occupy one of the bilious ledges of the story, whiskey-swigging Mammy O'Dougal (Nancy E. Carroll) and sniveling JohnnyPateenMike (Dermot Crowley).

Until late in the proceedings, when the story makes an unconvincing segue from hard-edged to soft, "Cripple" is as gleefully vinegary as anything McDonagh has conjured. The playwright uses as his inspiration perhaps the most significant cultural event ever to take place on the islands: the filming of "Man of Aran," the 1934 movie by Robert Flaherty that is considered a milestone of the documentary genre.

Contrary, though, to the kinetic imagery of the film, McDonagh's men and women of Aran are trapped in a world more like the one in "Groundhog Day" - an endless parade of suffocating days, all pretty much the same. It's no isolated act of whimsy that the favorite pastime of the title character, Cripple Billy (the excellent Tadhg Murphy) is staring at cows. Or that his stir-crazy aunt, Kate (Ingrid Craigie), talks to stones. Or that everyone on the island is, for want of meaningful things to do, hooked on JohnnyPateenMike's pathetic gossip reports, which consist of items like: "There's a sheep in Kerry with no ears."

The starkness of existence on Inishmaan has eroded the niceties and dried up most of the sentimentality. Which is why orphaned Billy is openly derided for his deformities, and alluring lasses such as Slippy Helen (Claire Dunne) see men as little more than momentary distractions. Billy, however, is bright and sensitive, the sort of young fellow who can surpass backwater expectations. So when the news reaches Inishmaan via JohnnyPateenMike that Flaherty is recording his movie on a nearby island, Billy becomes obsessed with getting away, seeing a little of the rest of the world and getting more of it than he bargained for.

If not conveyed with the requisite bite, "The Cripple of Inishmaan" could get confusingly cute in a hurry. McDonagh's people are as irresistible to us as they are nasty to one another. (He's one of the few dramatists capable of a sympathetic rendering of a pet-killer or of mining the laughs in a man who's encouraging his sot of a mother to drink herself to death.) Hynes understands the conflict in McDonagh's characters, between their ingratiating lack of pretension and their violent and other off-putting impulses.

And she finds actors who can play effortlessly with the tensions. In the uproarious pitched battle between Mammy O'Dougal and JohnnyPateenMike, Carroll and Crowley trade outrageous barbs like a pair of insult comics who know the routines all too well. Dunne's Helen practices a more physical brand of comedy in her torment of her brother Bartley (Laurence Kinlan), and their interplay proves an entertaining display of mutual detestation. Billy's caretaking "aunties," solidly portrayed by Craigie and Dearbhla Molloy, are yet another polished comedy team, dryly recycling their cares and woes as if they inhabited a play of Beckett's.

Francis O'Connor's utilitarian sets don't supply much atmosphere, and Colin Towns's music comes across, at times, as a bit feeble. But Inishmaan's residents, as channeled here, don't need much assistance from ancillary sights and sounds. They are impressive dramatic events unto themselves, each and every one of them.

The Cripple of Inishmaan by Martin McDonagh. Directed by Garry Hynes. Sets and costumes, Francis O'Connor; lighting, Davy Cunningham; sound, John Leonard; composer, Colin Towns; fight direction, J. David Brimmer. With Paul Vincent O'Connor, Liam Carney. Through Saturday at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. Visit or call 202-467-4600.

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