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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Unquestionably, we're probably missing a lot of good plays as a result of writers deserting the theater for the wider visibility and better pay offered for film work. Fortunately McDonagh's defection has not diminished his ability to shock and delight us with his gritty gallows humor.
Hangmen is timely in that it gives us a chance to see his talents showcased on both stage and screen; also because its title characters fit the much in the news global problem of job obsolescence. But leave it to McDonagh to tackle this subject with a job category that quite literally fits his style of humor by taking on a work category ever discussed, written about or dramatized by anyone else. While both men who've given the play its title are based on well-known real life hangmen, this is a work of McDonagh's ever active, darkly comic imagination.
The plot takes us back to 1961 and 1963. The earlier date is as Harry Wade explains the last time he served "as servant of the Crown in the capacity of hangman." The 1963 date coincides with the day hanging was abolished by the government and is set in the pub in Northern England that's now workplace and home to former hangman Harry Wade (Mark Addy) fully capturing the killer instinct that can reside inside an ordinary, man), his gin guzzling wife Alice (Sally Rogers, who also played the part in London), and their beloved but "mopey" teen-aged daughter Shirley (Gaby French).
Harry is the play's focal character and has enjoyed a degree of celebrity with the regulars at his pub. Addy masterfully captures this physically imposing ordinary man who's never had a moment's unease about his work. In fact, he's proud of his work and defensive only about Albert Pierpoint's being regarded as the country's number one hangman. That's because Pierrpoint sent twice as many people to their death as Harry and went to Germany, as Harry did not, to hang most of its Nazi criminals.
What makes Hangmen so much fun is not only the playwright's. stuffed with mysteries and surprises script, but the way costume and set designer Anna Fleischle has managed to create three eye-popping, distinct sets. All are so full of their own surprises that to detail them would be as much of a spoiler as revealing too much about the increasingly complex and mystifying plot developments would be.
Add to the story telling and staging pluses that the British production's director Matthew Dunster is on board to smoothly steer satisfyingly large ensemble through the shifting locales and character dynamics. Lucky for New York audiences, the cast also includes the London cast's Johnny Flynn to recreate Mooney, the play's deliciously menacing Pinteresque character. It's no wonder the theater was packed at the press preview I attended, and that it's likely to extend and maybe move to Broadway as The Beauty Queen of Leenane did 20 years ago.
If you think an actual hanging such as the one we witness in the first scene is likely to be too grizzly to be funny as well as grizzly, Ms. Fleischle's set up for a wrongly convicted man named Hennessy's (Gilles Geary) execution proves otherwise; so does McDonagh's dialogue which has the desperate man interrupt his frantic insistence on his innocence long enough to complain that they could have at least sent Pierrpooint which has Wade amusingly gripe "I'm just as good."
The setting then does an amazing shift to the dour Northern London pub. At first, that scene meanders along rather slowly, feeling somewhat like yet another barroom play with lots of drink-infused male banter. But this being the day when the death penalty is once again front page news, the plot quickly thickens and ratchets up that Pinteresque aura. And so in addition to the usual suspects, the bar's visitors now Mooney (the terrific Flynn) and Clegg (Owen Campbell) a newspaper reporter assigned to get the reactions of Wade and Pierrpont. Of course Harry does take Clegg to his private quarters to sound off. Thanks to another clever bit of clever staging the audience is privvy to that unwisely expansive interview. The publication of the interview also briefly brings on the rival hangman who's always made Harry feel second best — and courtesy of Maxwell Cauldwell's hilarious brief turn, does so again.
Reece Shearsmith, is another spot-on London holdover. He plays Syd, Harry's not too swift, erstwhile former assistant who, when Shirley goes missing, throws suspicion on the mysterious Mooney and arrives too late to prevent his ill-conceived interchanges with Harry and Mooney to lead to a pitch-dark finale. Syd's coffee shop meet-up with Mooney provides yet another unanticipated visual coup de theatre .
Dialect coach Stephn Gabis has helped most of the cast to handles the regional accents clearly. The chief exceptions are the two women, who aren't always easy to hear even in this small theater aren't always easy to hear.
For all its darkly enjoyable humor, Hangmen does send the audience home with a serious message: Welcome as a law ending a justice system prone to unjust executions was, it didn't immediately and universally undo the urge to commit acts of violence. That violence inside so many of us is also evident in the film, Three Billboardss Outside Ebbing Missouri.
But hang it all. . . McDonagh does make his dark vision of humankind highly entertaining, no matter what the medium.
Links to Martin McDonagh productions reviewed at Curtainup:
Hangmen in London
A Behanding In Spokane
The Lonesome West
The Cripple of Inishmaan
Lieutenant of Inishmore
A Skull In Connemara
The Beauty Queen of Leenane (Atlantic Theater 1999)
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Hangmen by Martin Mcdonagh
Directed By Matthew Dunster
. Cast: Mark Addy cast as Harry, alongside original London cast members Johnny Flynn (as Mooney), Sally Rogers (as Alice), and Reece Shearsmith as Syd; also Owen Campbell as Clegg, Billy Carter as Charlie, Maxwell Caulfield as Pierrepoint, Gaby French as Shirley, Gilles Geary as Hennessy, Richard Hollis as Bill), John Horton as Arthur and David Lansbury as Fry.
Scenic and costume design by Anna Fleischle
Lighting design by Joshua Carr
Sound design by Ian Dickinson for Autograph
Dialect coaching by Stephen Gabis
Fight choreography by J. David Brimmer
Stage Manager: Hannah Sullivan
Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street
From 1/18/18;opening 2/05/18; closing 3/25/18
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 2/04/18 press preview
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