There is a girl on the island of Inishmaan who likes to stick needles into the eyes of worms, or so it's rumored in the second act of Martin McDonagh's cruel and sporadically funny "The Cripple of Inishmaan," which opened Sunday night at Studio Theatre. No reason to doubt the report, based on the rest of what goes on in the dark comedy: a steady stream of insults, beatings, even paid assassinations of animals (reported, not seen).
This is Ireland, or McDonagh's cracked view of the sentimental view of Ireland. Nothing on Tony Cisek's bleak but tidy set seems more significant than the small fractured mirror hanging by the door of the all-but-barren shop run by the fake aunties of Billy, the tender-hearted cripple of the title. What are the denizens of far-flung Inishmaan supposed to see of themselves in that glass if not shattered portraits?
And what would the movies make of this spot? It's a pressing question, since McDonagh sets the play in 1934, placing "Nanook of the North" director Robert Flaherty nearby as he makes his documentary of fishing life, "Man of Aran." (Talk about a controversial image of Ireland: movie critic Pauline Kael called "Man of Aran" "a celebration of heroic traditions," while Graham Greene derided it as "flagrantly bogus.") Helen McCormack, pretty and rough, wants to be in the picture, so she drags her sweet-toothed brother Bartley along and bullies Babbybobby Bennett into rowing them toward the action. Billy finagles his way onto the boat by feigning tuberculosis (Babbybobby can't deny the wishes of a dying man). Kate and Eileen, Billy's dear dowdy aunties, cry over their departed Billy. And then on second thought, they hope he drowns.
There has been no shortage of people willing to trumpet the profundity of McDonagh's amoral galleries, drawing a straight line from this 1997 play in particular to Synge's "Playboy of the Western World." One difference, though, is that in "Playboy" you could tell even through the bitter critique that Synge cared deeply for Ireland. In "Cripple," it's hard to say what the London-reared McDonagh, who has claimed movies and TV as his chief influences, cares for other than entertaining himself in the same manner as the girl who tortures worms.
Once you've seen a couple of McDonagh's plays -- at least those that have been staged in Washington -- it's too easy to stay several steps ahead of his comic game, in which the object is to pursue nearly every encounter to its basest level. Mammy O'Dougal, a mother on her deathbed, is helped to toxic levels of whisky by Johnnypateenmike, her foul-mouthed son. (The names push parody to its outer limits.) And let's have none of that "indomitable spirit" muck to describe Mammy: She's been trying to drink herself to death for half a century. Should Billy need a soft memory of his own mother to cling to -- his parents are long dead, according to a story that keeps shifting -- old Dr. McSharry will stubbornly recall for Billy how ugly she was.
And Billy -- well, you can imagine the fate of a poor crippled boy, practically S-shaped in the accomplished posture of disfigurement that Aubrey Deeker manages in the role. Dragging his left foot heavily, his right arm looking as if it's been nailed to his ribs, Deeker's Billy is a pitiable sight, with curly locks and a shine on his high, pale forehead giving him the aura of a tragic figure out of a romantic poem. Billy has a noble soul; McDonagh's thin irony is that the able-bodied folks of Inishmaan all have deformed spirits.
This is grotesque, absurd and potentially funny as hell. (Though you can quarrel with its significance, you can't fault the comic possibilities.) But along with the cool sheen of professionalism that is Studio's hallmark, Serge Seiden's production has a peculiar earnestness. Seiden handles the play more like literature than comedy and generally gets considered, intelligent performances from the cast. The cruelty that prevails is casual, without much friction or zest.
Still, a few of the characterizations are choice, namely David Marks's greasy, bumbling turn as Johnnypateenmike, a dimwitted parasite who peddles secondhand news, and June Hansen's dynamic snarling as Johnny's indestructible mother. Together Marks and Hansen find depths of loathing that freshen the material.
Terrence Currier does fine, unfussy work as Dr. McSharry, but most of the rest of the actors still seem a little too smart for their roles. Susan Lynskey is calculating but not persuasively combustible as the violent Helen, while Brigid Cleary and Rosemary Regan seem to hover somewhere above the addled aunts they're playing. It's as if the jury were still out on how twisted "Cripple" really is.
The Cripple of Inishmaan by Martin McDonagh. Directed by Serge Seiden. Lights, Michael Giannitti; costumes, Alex Jaeger; sound, Neil McFadden; props, Michelle Elwyn. With Tom Kearney and Mark Jude Sullivan. Approximately 2 hours 30 minutes. Through June 27 at Studio Theatre, 14th and P streets NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit www.studiotheatre.org.