If Travel + Leisure magazine were to run a feature on the most gruesome lodgings in America, the hotel room in Martin McDonagh’s “A Behanding in Spokane” would surely top the list. Maybe not so much for its decor, although the room’s peeling paint, faded bedspread and mass of grubby fingerprints around the door handle are all atmospheric enough — if the Keegan Theatre’s rather stagy and cheap-looking production of the play is anything to go by. It’s the goings-on in the room that really raise the luridness quotient: By the time McDonagh wraps up his comic and grisly plot, this small-town-America motor inn resembles a flophouse operated by the Theatre du Grand Guignol.
Anglo-Irish dramatist and filmmaker McDonagh is known for the violent and shocking plot twists in plays such as “The Pillowman” and “The Beauty Queen of Leenane.” (His films include “Seven Psychopaths” and “In Bruges.”) He hasn’t changed course for “Behanding,” the first of his plays to be set in America. Premiered in 2010, this archly sinister party-trick of a script — which sometimes feels like a McDonagh self-parody — centers on a racist nut case named Carmichael (Mark A. Rhea), who is rampaging the United States in search of his missing hand. As Carmichael tells it, the mitt was severed in a horrific crime many years ago: So when two kids named Marilyn (Laura Herren) and Toby (Manu Kumasi) turn up, purporting to know the extremity’s whereabouts, a bloody showdown seems certain.
At least, it would be, if Carmichael and his new acquaintances — including the flaky hotel receptionist, Mervyn (Bradley Foster Smith) — could rein in their profanity-laced conversations, which frequently stray off into matters like fire-drill procedure, the semiotics of the phrase “the chickens come home to roost” and the appropriate etiquette for speaking to Carmichael’s mother, who keeps calling on the phone. The humor in this 90-minute play, as well as much of the suspense, stems from the characters’ incongruously quibbling palaver and oddball composure in the face of the macabre.
In the Keegan production, directed by Colin Smith (who also designed the set), actor Bradley Foster Smith does the best job exploiting this tension-infused comic dynamic. Wide-eyed and jittery, with a habit of jutting his chin out at odd angles, this Mervyn is divertingly eccentric and clueless — although a hint of waifish melancholy comes through as well.
By contrast, Rhea’s ostensibly psychopathic Carmichael can be a shade tedious: Chalk it down to the actor’s tendency to deliver most of his lines with the same husky intonations and squinty glower. (Kelly Peacock designed the appropriate costumes, including Carmichael’s dingy drifter look and Mervyn’s nerdy vest and bowtie.) As the hapless Marilyn and Toby, Herren and Kumasi sometimes mug and overtelegraph their characters’ intentions, particularly toward the start of the play, although Kumasi does pack comic zing into some of Toby’s lines, later on.
No doubt for unavoidable budgetary reasons, the production’s key gore effect looks ridiculously phony. Such flaws don’t wholly impede McDonagh’s deadpan wit and slickly plotted sensationalism: The Keegan staging occasionally keeps you on tenterhooks, and it’s often funny. But all in all, the production doesn’t put the best face — or, perhaps we should say, hand — on the play.
Celia Wren is a freelance writer.
by Martin McDonagh. Direction and set design by Colin Smith; lighting design, Megan Thrift; sound, Tony Angelini; set dressing and properties, Carol H. Baker; hair and makeup design, Craig Miller; assistant director, Sheri S. Herren. 90 minutes. Through April 7 at The Church Street Theater, 1742 Church Street NW, Washington, D.C. Call 703-892-0202 or visit Keegan Theatre.