Martin McDonagh’s “The Cripple of Inishmaan” is a fry-up of eccentric characters. There’s the chronic busybody Johnnypateenmike, who barters food for gossip. There’s the bizarrely aggressive young woman Helen, who loves to break the eggs she gets paid to deliver. And there’s Helen’s dimwitted brother, Bartley, who is obsessed with telescopes.
Given all this zaniness, it’s a sign of the maturity and steadiness of director Steven Carpenter’s production for 1st Stage that some of the most effective moments involve the less-outlandish characters. Providing an even guide rail for this brisk and generally diverting version of the play, for instance, are the regular appearances by Eileen and Kate (Carol Randolph and Susan Holliday), two shopkeeper sisters who are so un-flighty that their shelves contain a perpetual surfeit of canned peas. Often seen fretting quietly at their grocery counter or listening to the rantings of Johnnypateenmike and the others, these stoical, shawl-draped figures go some ways toward making the isolated island of Inishmaan — off Ireland’s west coast — an absorbing reality.
Okay: The aunts aren’t entirely quirk-free. Kate talks to rocks when she gets upset. But don’t we all have idiosyncrasies? Certainly the play’s pathos-tinged title character, Billy, who endures the slights that are regularly lobbed his way because of his physical handicaps, finds release in staring at cows.
In Carpenter’s staging, Josh Adams plays Billy with admirable understatement, if perhaps a touch too much opacity. This young man is an endearingly determined, quietly despairing underdog, so it’s not hard to take an interest when events in the neighborhood hold out hopes of improving his fortunes. As Johnnypateenmike breathlessly announces, an American director is filming a movie on a nearby island, and locals who talk their way onto the set might be able to finagle a future in Hollywood. (The plot twist is based on the filming of Robert Flaherty’s 1934 “Man of Aran.”) Will Billy gain a foothold in Tinseltown? If so, how many acts of betrayal will eddy in his wake? And what, exactly, does Johnnypateenmike know about the drownings, years ago, of Billy’s parents?
These and other questions feed the suspense of “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” which is stocked with McDonagh’s trademark narrative shockers and pin-in-the-balloon jabs at facile romantic visions of Ireland. (A production starring Daniel Radcliffe, of “Harry Potter” fame, opens on Broadway this month, coincidentally.) In the 1st Stage version, set designer JD Madsen hits the right notes of claustrophobic bleakness with spartan interiors and a stretch of rocky beach, all locked onto a spinning turntable. Also helping evoke the environment are the very creditable Irish accents: Hats off to vocal coach Jane Margulies Kalbfeld and the cast for this achievement.
On a less-positive note: Carpenter has not quite managed to tune all the performances to a consistent level of realism. The broad comedy of Robert Grimm’s Bartley doesn’t really blend with the more subtle, naturalistic portraits, such as Adams’s Billy. Megan Graves’s high-spirited Helen, though hilarious and riveting, also comes across as a tad larger-than-life, when compared with other turns. These variegations in approach to characterization make the production’s evocation of Inishmaan less persuasive than it might otherwise be.
Supporting performances that do harmonize comfortably with the prevailing key include John Stange’s brooding version of the boatman Babbybobby and Matt Dewberry’s compassionate but exasperated Dr. McSharry. And in the larger role of Johnnypateenmike, Mark Lee Adams conjures up a figure whose zaniness seems plausible and grounded — you can believe this oddball makes a living with his blend of news and wind-swept hearsay.
Wren is a freelance writer.
by Martin McDonagh. Directed by Steven Carpenter; sound design, Neil McFadden; lighting, Brian Allard; props, Cindy Jacobs; costumes, Cheryl Patton Wu; assistant director, Ryan Tumulty. With Rebecca Lenehan. About two hours. Tickets: $15-$27. Through April 20 at 1st Stage, 1524 Spring Hill Rd., Tysons Corner,Va.
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