If you are going to put creepy- and more than a little crazy- on stage, Christopher Walken is your main man.
The actor is the spark plug who jump-starts “A Behanding in Spokane,” Martin McDonagh’s slight slice of macabre double-dealing that opened Thursday at Broadway’s Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.
Walken portrays a one-handed misfit named Carmichael who, for more than four decades, has been looking for his missing digits. The “behanding” took place on a railroad track years ago, and the perpetrators waved goodbye with it as they fled the scene.
The loss becomes quite an obsession, one that even Carmichael admits is a little all-consuming, with him having spent his “entire adult life searching for something, haggling with street-scum and shaking down corpse-dealers across the filth-lots and flea-alleys of this sad decaying nation.” And he’s still looking.
McDonagh, author of such fine plays as “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” and “The Pillowman,” does have a swift, sure way with words, as well as one of the darkest senses of humor around. His profanity-laced dialogue ricochets with an off-kilter fascination, a quality Walkin brilliantly taps into here.
And the actor doesn’t even need the other performers to pull off what is the funniest moment currently on a Broadway stage: Carmichael’s extended telephone conversation with is mother, an unseen but very present force in this play. Walkin, his scraggly hair complementing his cadaverous features, is a master of timing in these few phone minutes, as he becomes the strangest mama’s boy on record.
But Walken does have an advantage over the three other performers in “Behanding.” Carmichael is the play’s only fully developed character. The others are cartoons, plot devices for McDonagh’s slender tale, which never quite moves beyond its sketchlike qualities. Even director John Crowley, a veteran of other McDonagh plays, can’t disguise the thinness of the story.
The play, set in a seedy hotel room, also involves a pair of con artists, a young couple played by Anthony Mackie and Zoe Kazan, who claim to have Carmichael’s missing hand. When they produce a hand of the wrong skin color, violence erupts, although not as overwhelmingly as the carnage in “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” McDonagh’s bloodiest play.
Mackie and Kazan perform on the edge of one-note hysteria, particularly after they are taken captive by Carmichael. There is a shrillness to these scammers that eventually lessens the impact of their ferocious verbal battle with Walken, shouting that descends into name-calling of the racist and homophobic variety.
Far more interesting is the hotel’s receptionist (Sam Rockwell), a peculiar man whose strangeness matches Carmichael’s. Rockwell effectively channels this man, a fellow who eventually forms a bond with the one-handed guest. The actor gets his own showy monologue in the middle of this short play, which barely runs 90 minutes. But it’s quirky for quirk’s sake, entertaining but not really helpful in expanding the plot.
Still, there is Walken to take up the slack when the weirdness threatens to spin out of control. His performance will haunt you even if the play does not.
Christopher Walken has an eccentric charisma, his hangdog, sorrowful demeanor spiked with a twisted kind of charm. The mix is a perfect fit for Martin McDonagh's particular brand of macabre comedy.
That Walken is the main attraction of the playwright's new "A Behanding in Spokane" is obvious -- the other night, the audience erupted into guffaws every time the star opened his mouth.
But the performance is more subtle than this reflexive response indicates: There's a hauntingly off-kilter poetry to Walken.
It almost distracts you from how contrived McDonagh's writing is.
There's a hauntingly off-kilter poetry to Christopher Walken's performance, but Martin McDonagh's writing is contrived.
The problem is that "Behanding," which opened last night, is simultaneously trying too hard and not hard enough.
The first part relates to the tone, which aims for the Coen brothers' sweet spot: hip grotesque, abundant profanity, comic digressions (substitute a monkey for the Royale with cheese here).
And, of course, there's the obligatory noir plot: Carmichael (Walken) had his left hand cut off when he was a kid, and he's spent his whole life looking for it.
A couple of young, bungling con artists, Toby and Marilyn (Anthony Mackie, Zoe Kazan), try to sell him a mummified paw, and naturally everything goes horribly wrong. These two don't stand a chance against the supernaturally serene Carmichael, who keeps them hostage in a dingy hotel room. (Clever shabby set courtesy of Scott Pask.)
But the play is on cruise control, and not even Walken can save it.
Typical is a monologue by the hotel's resentful receptionist, Mervyn (Sam Rockwell), that moves from gibbons to high school shootings, but isn't half as touching, funny or trenchant as it needs to be. And McDonagh resorts to racial elements that feel like leftover Quentin Tarantino-isms. Oooh, throwing the N-word around is so provocative!
As demonstrated in works like "The Lieutenant of Inishmore" and "The Pillowman," the Anglo-Irish playwright has a great ear for funny-scary colloquialisms and a genuine facility with words, but that's also a trap: He doesn't push himself nearly enough here.
It doesn't help that under John Crowley's direction, Kazan (especially shrill) and Mackie yell all their lines with hysterical urgency. OK, OK: So they're handcuffed to pipes while a can of gasoline threatens to explode. But the constant fever pitch becomes numbing after a while, and doesn't obscure the fact that Toby and Marilyn have had plenty of opportunities to escape. They're so dumb, they deserve to go up in flames.
This is the first time McDonagh -- who's based most of his shows in Ireland -- has premiered a work in the US. It's hard not to wonder if he delivered what he thought (consciously or not) American audiences wanted. Too bad he sold us short.
Sometimes, in one of theater’s more undervalued romantic story lines, an actor meets a set and — flash! — chemistry happens. The opening image of Christopher Walken in Martin McDonagh’s “Behanding in Spokane” is such a perfect, demented marriage of character and environment that you can’t help grinning like a fool.
For there before you sits Mr. Walken, looking baleful and unwashed as only Mr. Walken can, on a bed in a seedy hotel room that might have been decorated by Edward Hopper in partnership with Stephen King. (The designer of record is Scott Pask.) Man and milieu understand each other here, and they exhale a shared, crusted loneliness and a thick funk of impure thoughts and deeds. “Nothing good can possibly happen,” you think, eyeing the gloom with giddiness, “and isn’t that wonderful?”
For the first few ecstatic moments of “A Behanding in Spokane,” which opened Thursday night at the Schoenfeld Theater, it looks as if the dangerous promises of Mr. Walken’s dead gaze will be fulfilled many fold. That they are not is no fault of Mr. Walken’s. His use of his signature arsenal of stylistic oddities has seldom been more enthralling.
But the disappointment that shadows the face of Mr. Walken’s character — a one-handed man who has been searching for years for his severed appendage — comes to seem like a prophecy of the audience’s. The rest of the erratically enjoyable “Behanding” — directed by John Crowley and featuring Sam Rockwell, Anthony Mackie and Zoe Kazan — never matches the strange genius of its star.
“Behanding” is the first foray into an American setting for Mr. McDonagh, who made his name by gleefully translating the dark sensibility of film noir and Grand Guignol into tall tales of rural Ireland (the Leenane trilogy, “The Lieutenant of Inishmore”). Though his non-Irish play “The Pillowman” (set in a Kafkaesque totalitarian state) was a knockout, he seems to have lost his hitherto unerring sense of direction in the busy, open country of the United States.
His hapless, bored and obsessive characters, natural liars and fantasists all, may require the insularity of a small, isolated, self-mythologizing world to flourish and self-destruct credibly. As reconceived for “Spokane” these prototypes start to seem alarmingly like figures from a conventional Hollywood caper comedy about dopey, foul-mouthed crooks who keep tripping over themselves.
A misfired scam, set up by a pair of out-of-their-league con artists, is at the center of “Behanding.” Carmichael (Mr. Walken), the man in search of the hand, has arrived hopefully at a hotel in an unspecified small town. (You feel he’s stayed in hundreds of places like this one, and they’ve all been heartbreak hotels.) He is here to meet with Toby (Mr. Mackie) and Marilyn (Ms. Kazan), who claim to have possession of that long-lost hand.
Since this is a McDonagh play, I don’t think it’s giving away much to say not only that Toby and Marilyn have no such thing, but also that they are lousy at bluffing. And that when Carmichael twigs this, the forms his anger assume will be both sadistic and imaginative.
In this case the props for revenge include a can of gasoline, a candle and handcuffs, and the obligatory gun. And, oh yes, you may as well know that, honoring a McDonagh tradition, body parts are flung in the anatomical equivalent of a food fight. Racial and sexual epithets, of a nature to make David Mamet flinch, are flung as well. In the midst of this merry savagery is Mervyn (Mr. Rockwell), the hotel manager, who apparently suffers from a serious case of death wish.
Mr. Mackie (“The Hurt Locker”), Mr. Rockwell (who has the play’s best-written monologue) and Ms. Kazan are talented, individualistic performers with impressively varied résumés. But here they often fall into formulaic styles, playing the situation more than the characters. At times, especially when a sorely missed Mr. Walken is not onstage, “Behanding” feels like a just-written “Saturday Night Live” sketch, for which the jokes have yet to be tested. (Poor Mr. Mackie is required to describe the hotel room as “Hand Central Station.”)
It could be that they’re intimidated by the presence of Mr. Walken, an actor’s actor of fabled eccentricity. In any case they don’t get in his way, which is a mercy, since Mr. Walken’s Carmichael is a scrofulous wonder to behold. For over four decades Mr. Walken has been American film’s most reliably bizarre portrayer of chilling kooks (from “Annie Hall” and “The Deer Hunter” to “Batman Returns” and “Pulp Fiction”). And some people have become allergic to his familiar panoply of tics and quirks.
But seldom does this actor only glide on surface mannerisms. There’s highly intelligent method in his madness. Or should we say Method? Mr. Walken is directly descended from Method acting’s most celebrated practitioner, Marlon Brando. And like Brando he has a turn of phrasing that makes even the most generic sentences sound worthy of serious analysis.
Pauses pop up when you least expect them, entirely shifting the weight of the words around them. Inflections rise upward when normally they would curve down. A single clause can slalom from ennui to anger. These idiosyncrasies of delivery surprise you into close attention and, ultimately, into feeling you can trace the thoughts of the man speaking.
For Carmichael that train of thought feels singularly lonely, propelled by a logic only he can understand. Variously abstracted and abruptly, frighteningly focused, he is unquestionably a man obsessed. He’s like a small-time, loopier and more selfish variation on the revenge-starved vigilantes played by Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood, an idea nicely underscored by Mr. Pask’s man-in-black costume for him, with its too-short pants.
But Mr. Eastwood and Mr. Bronson never let us into their characters’ heads the way Mr. Walken does here. “Step into my mind,” he seems to be saying, as he stammers or curls his lip or blinks catatonically. If Mr. McDonagh hasn’t provided the kind of exhilarating, nasty fun house we have come to expect of him, we are at least allowed to spend shivery time in that shabby, scary labyrinth that exists behind Carmichael’s glassy forehead.
The ferociously gifted Anglo-Irish writer Martin McDonagh has cited American authors and filmmakers from Flannery O'Connor to Martin Scorsese as influences. So you might expect these artists to inform A Behanding in Spokane (**½ out of four), his first play set in the USA.
But Spokane, which opened Thursday at Broadway's Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, seems more like an homage to the iconically edgy playwrights who have long inspired McDonagh, or a parody of them. Laden with obscenity, menace and wry humor, this latest effort nods to Harold Pinter and David Mamet, though it doesn't approach the brutal brilliance of their work — or McDonagh's own previous outings.
Set in a downscale hotel room, Spokane traces a day in the unfortunate life of a fellow named Carmichael. By his own account, Carmichael lost one of his hands as a teenager in an act of willful cruelty perpetrated by a gang of hillbillies, who then took off with it. Nearly half a century later, he is still determined to retrieve the now-useless appendage. "I just want it back," he explains. In his admittedly twisted mind, it's a matter not only of justice but of honor.
Carmichael's plight would seem like fertile terrain for McDonagh, who has juggled dark comedy and pathos beautifully in the past. But here he seems more interested in absurdity for its own sake, providing Carmichael, played by a predictably and hilariously off-center Christopher Walken, with a motley crew of supporting characters and letting them have at each other.
We meet Toby and Marilyn, a couple of small-time swindlers who try to exploit Carmichael's desperation, only to discover that their would-be victim doesn't take well to trickery. Toby is black, providing the racist protagonist a convenient target for a steady slew of epithets. Zoe Kazan plays Marilyn as a shrill bimbo, shrieking hoarsely or flirting vapidly. Anthony Mackie's Toby, too, exists in a state of perpetual hysteria, screaming and sputtering and sobbing.
The hotel receptionist, Mervyn, is more flamboyantly damaged, professing to a fondness for monkeys and disturbing fantasies that involve school shootings. Clearly, this guy is on Carmichael's wavelength, and Sam Rockwell gives him a goofy bravado that contrasts nicely with Walken's understated creepiness.
Walken, as is his wont, seems to have wandered in from another planet altogether. With his stringy hair, disheveled clothes and air of irritated distraction — not to mention that stump attached to his left wrist — his Carmichael seems more dangerous than the louder, fussier folks, and is more consistently funny. It's an immensely entertaining performance, though you can't help but wonder how different the play's dynamics might have been with a less famously quirky actor in the role.
As is, this Spokane offers more laughs than insights. While hardly McDonagh's most fully realized effort, it leaves us wondering where his own singular imagination will take him next.
If you're looking to fill the role of an A-grade "cracker motherfucker," to use the parlance of Martin McDonagh, then Christopher Walken is your go-to guy. Imagine the actor's hidden-wristwatch tale from "Pulp Fiction" bulked up into a freestanding narrative and you have an approximate idea of "A Behanding in Spokane," a piece of virtuoso storytelling fashioned out of a slim anecdote. There's no broader theme, no veiled subtext and no underlying allegory. The playwright makes no pretense of doing anything beyond spinning a good yarn. Entertaining as it is, however, the black comedy remains insubstantial.
While there are a lot of laughs and style to burn in both John Crowley's production and McDonagh's new play, the deluxe treatment ultimately shines a brighter spotlight right through the skeletal material. In the Irish playwright's first work set in the U.S., there's a nod to the futile quest for justice and retribution in "this sad, decaying nation." But a nod is all it is.
Framed by a distressed proscenium, Scott Pask's design whips back a soiled curtain to reveal a seedy hotel room that appears to have leapt from the imagination of William Burroughs. And Brian MacDevitt's lighting douses the scene in a jaundiced glow that makes it the perfect window for Walken's clammy-cool performance.
The actor is caricaturing himself, but his enjoyment in doing so is contagious. Walken draws on a seemingly endless repertoire of ways to express contempt, disgust, menace and malevolent boredom while playing Carmichael, a straggly-haired sociopath who has spent 47 years searching for his severed hand. From the moment we first see him, unperturbed and unsmiling as he pulls a gun from his rumpled black hangman's coat and proceeds to deal with the gagged figure rattling around in the hotel closet, the audience eats it up.
With a lifetime of grievances behind him, Carmichael doesn't take kindly to being scammed. So he's not inclined to go easy on Toby (Anthony Mackie) and Marilyn (Zoe Kazan), the hapless weed dealers who tried to collect a reward by passing off a hand pilfered from a museum display as his missing appendage. The fact that the bogus body part came from a black person only adds to racist Carmichael's cold fury.
The couple gets little help from hotel desk clerk Mervyn (Sam Rockwell), too dangerously stupid to have much concern for his own safety, let alone theirs. His history of being ripped off by Toby makes Mervyn delight in the guy's discomfort as he sits cuffed to a radiator pipe, soaked in petrol and awaiting the return of the still-handless executioner.
In a script stuffed with profane verbal pyrotechnics and flagrant political incorrectness, McDonagh gets major comic mileage out of pea-brain Marilyn's umbrage over the offensive terminology Carmichael employs while threatening their lives. But aside from an inspired bit of physical comedy when she shimmies up the wall, Kazan is the weakest link. Not given much assistance by the playwright, she enters in shrill high-anxiety mode and has nowhere to go.
While none of the characters has an arc to play, Walken's best backup comes from Mackie, who puts a motormouth comic's spin on a role originally rumored for Chris Rock. Toby is the one character believably terrified of Carmichael, even more so after he mishandles a phone call from the latter's mom. His fear raises the stakes, and Carmichael's mother issues take the already absurdist tale on an amusing, off-kilter tangent in one of Walken's more deranged arias.
The always likable Rockwell does doofus shtick we've seen from him before. He gets lumbered with an extraneous monologue early on that feels like padding in such an undernourished frame. It sucks the tension out of the action, and the short play takes its time rebuilding steam.
While McDonagh's previous stage works reportedly were written in a sustained burst of early-career productivity, "Spokane" was penned following completion of his 2008 feature debut as writer-director, "In Bruges." It feels here as if the playwright is catering to his fans' expectations -- the gruesome flourishes and blithe violence, the lacerating dialogue and savage humor, the maniacal characters and explosive confrontations -- but in sketch form rather than a full-bodied play. All the same, many will be delighted with what he serves up.
McDonagh has never made any great claim of thematic weight, and even his quasi-political plays, "The Lieutenant of Inishmore" and "The Pillowman," are stronger on narrative meat than message. Which ain't no crime. But especially coming after last season's brilliant revival of "The Cripple of Inishmaan," with its balance of searing poignancy and cruelty, the grubby razzle-dazzle of this funny throwaway feels a tad lazy.