Contradictions of human nature are the fodder that playwright Martin McDonagh often mines in his masterfully satirical dark comedies about quirky rural Irish characters.
Now director Michael Grandage has brought the original, mostly Irish cast of his recent sold-out London production of McDonagh's "The Cripple of Inishmaan" to Broadway, with a very talented ensemble featuring Daniel Radcliffe as Billy.
Grandage's lively production, both raucous and tender, opened Sunday night at the Cort Theatre. It's the first Broadway appearance of McDonagh's 1996 tale about the insular denizens of a remote Irish island in the 1930s. Previous New York productions were off-Broadway, in 2008 at the Atlantic Theater and in 1998 at the Public Theater.
So boring is life for the residents of this small seaside village that a new feud between once-good friends is huge news, and they while away the time playing minor unkind tricks upon one another. A Hollywood movie being scouted on a nearby island soon sends them dreaming.
Radcliffe, who made his Broadway debut in a 2008 production of "Equus" and returned in 2011 to star in the Frank Loesser musical "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," works as an integral part of the cast.
To his generally callous neighbors, teenage Billy is just a target of ridicule, and how he became handicapped is one of the secrets that twist and turn throughout the play. Without showboating his twisted arm and leg, Radcliffe gives Billy a physical frailty and inner toughness combined with yearning that makes him a very sympathetic figure. Billy's desire to escape from the stifling loneliness and tedium of his narrow-minded country village is at the core of the story.
McDonagh ricochets between crass humor, careless cruelty and tender sorrow, all the while poking fun at Irish folklore, toying with stereotypes, and setting his characters up to have their dreams crushed. He suddenly reverses their backstories or presents unseen sides to their personalities that upend what the audience thinks it knows.
Pat Shortt is blustery fun as the town's gossip-monger, who fancies himself the town crier while bartering his news tidbits for food. Far from being the loving son who lives at home with his sainted mother, he's been plying his foul-mouthed, ancient Mammy (a marvelously dour, rubbery-faced June Watson) with liquor for years, in hopes of killing her.
Billy's secret crush is Helen (played with gleeful meanness and a perfect touch of insecurity by Sarah Greene). She's a beautiful young redhead who seems unnecessarily cruel. Her sharp-tongued, egg-tossing ways too easily escalate to possible animal brutality. She also provides brittle, anti-Catholic comedy with her casual references to the clergy whose groping she's violently fending off since childhood, at one point boasting, "I ruptured a curate at age 6."
Padraic Delaney seems genuinely kindhearted as a boat owner who helps Billy. Conor MacNeill is quite funny as Helen's tormented, candy-obsessed younger brother Bartley, while Gary Lilburn provides a grounding presence as the town doctor.
Two of the most wonderfully wrought characters are Billy's comical yet brooding aunts who have raised him. Their repetitious, chorus-like banter is given delightful nuance by Gillian Hanna and Ingrid Craigie. Christiopher Oram's rustic, slightly decaying, stone-laden set and simple, drab costumes add to the downtrodden atmosphere.
While Billy's coming of age is tinged with melodrama by McDonagh's fervid plotting, he and his fellow Inishmaan residents remain memorable and richly drawn, providing an evening of boisterous theatricality that overlays buried empathy for our shared human frailties.
Daniel Radcliffe has appeared naked on stage, but he’s never been as emotionally raw or as steady on his feet as he is now portraying Billy, a palsied Irish bloke who can barely walk in “The Cripple of Inishmaan.”
The former Harry Potter plays the title role in Martin McDonagh’s hilarious and haunting comedy — and casts a spell with humor, smarts and contagious compassion. This is the 24-year-old actor’s best performance on Broadway, where he’s previously headlined the drama “Equus” and the musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”
Radcliffe’s impressive work here is matched by his fellow actors, the direction and design of this show from London marking the 1996 play’s debut on Broadway. It’s been seen downtown in 1998 and 2008. One quibble with Michael Grandage’s very fine staging is that a vague final moment blunts the impact of the funny-sad tale a wee bit.
Set on a rugged island off the western coast of Ireland, the play considers life’s realities and dualities. The plot slyly capitalizes on an actual 1934 event — American documentary maker Robert Flaherty is in the area shooting “Man of Aran.”
Sickly but whip-smart, Billy seeks to parlay a visit to the nearby film set into a life far away from his devoted but daft aunties Eileen (Gillian Hanna), who’s got dagger eyes and a never-sated sweet tooth, and Kate (Ingrid Craigie), who talks to stones. And they’re not the only eccentrics he’d leave in his wake.
There’s the local blabbermouth Johnnypateenmike (Pat Shortt), his ancient alcoholic mammy (June Watson), volatile widow Babbybobby (Padraic Delaney), teen temptress Helen (Sarah Greene, walking dynamite) and her obsessive kid brother Bartley (a delightful Conor MacNeill).
Ace storyteller McDonagh (“The Pillowman,” “The Lieutenant of Inishmore”) makes these folksy characters’ behavior and conversations churn with wicked laughter and wise insights. Like most fables, things darken as truths and lessons emerge — like the one about how people who love and help us also hurt us.
Better yet, there’s the one about how a journey to a far-away place leaves you flat and a kiss from a local girl gives you a reason for living. Now if only fate would cooperate.
Through it all Radcliffe tightly hugs the curves of the spirited Billy’s journey. He vividly captures the melancholy, determination and, all too fleetingly, his joy.
Daniel Radcliffe is doing his darndest to put Harry Potter way, way behind him. On Broadway alone, he’s played a mentally disturbed young man who strips naked and blinds horses (“Equus”) and an ambitious schemer singing and dancing his way to the top of the corporate ladder (“How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”).
Now the star is contorting himself into a pretzel in “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” a role he tops off with a thick Irish brogue.
Radcliffe’s character, Billy, was born with a mangled left side, his arm shriveled up into a hook and his leg extending stiffly. He’s also an orphan with a tenacious cough, but since there’s neither coddling nor political correctness in 1934 Ireland, everybody on their small island calls him Cripple Billy.
Says the local gossip Johnnypateenmike (Pat Shortt), when Billy begs him to stop, “For why? Isn’t your name Billy and aren’t you a cripple?”
There are few options for our young lad, so he’s thrilled when an American crew comes to shoot a movie in neighboring Inishmaan: Maybe he can go back with them and make his way to Hollywood.
But Billy is only part of Martin McDonagh’s eccentric world, which also includes the aging sisters, Eileen (Gillian Hanna) and Kate (Ingrid Craigie), who raised Billy, and Helen (Sarah Greene), the girl Billy longs for — a red-haired terror who loves breaking eggs on people’s heads.
Famous for violent works — “The Pillowman,” “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” and “Seven Psychopaths” — McDonagh is working in a much gentler vein here, even if the humor often has a dark lining: Johnnypateenmike urges his alcoholic Mammy (June Watson) to drink herself to death, while she in turn hopes heartily to see him in his coffin.
But Michael Grandage’s production, imported from London, can be a little one-note — it pales in comparison to Garry Hynes’ earlier off-Broadway take.
In that 2008 version, we understood Billy and Helen as outsiders who were eventually drawn to each other. We don’t get much of that from Radcliffe and Greene. They’re both very likable, but he delivers all his lines in the same semi-urgent tone, while her pigtailed Helen plays like an Irish Pippi Longstocking.
Still, as uneven as it is, the play’s quirkily enjoyable — a limp’s not enough to wreck either man or show.
The best gossip on Broadway these days is nothing you can read in the tabloids. You’ll have to hear it in person, and believe me, you’ll want to. This is very deep dish — layered with malice and kindness, truth and conjecture, and all the mixed motives that make human beings such endlessly intriguing subjects of speculation.
The forum for this fascinating tittle-tattle is the Cort Theater, where Michael Grandage’s splendid production of Martin McDonagh’s “The Cripple of Inishmaan” opened on Sunday night. By the way — and wouldn’t you know? — there’s a movie star involved, as there often is when a Broadway show generates much talk.
But the star in question, Daniel Radcliffe, isn’t here just to flex his charisma for fans. In the title role of this glimmeringly dark comedy from 1996, Mr. Radcliffe — the boy wizard in the immensely successful “Harry Potter” movie franchise — is entirely convincing as the boy who is regarded as least likely to succeed at pretty much anything in his God-forsaken rural Irish town.
Of course, for a while rumor has it — and rumor has a lot in this play — that Mr. Radcliffe’s character, known as Cripple Billy, is on his way to becoming the toast of Hollywood. But don’t believe everything you hear in Inishmaan.
That includes the locally sourced stories, like the one about the two guys who are feuding over the mysterious murders of a goose and a cat. In Mr. McDonagh’s world, gossip is as unreliable as life itself, which somehow makes it all the more irresistible.
When I saw it in London last year as part of a season of plays staged by Mr. Grandage, who began his own theater company after a fertile reign as the artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse, this “Cripple” was a ringing testament to the talents of everyone involved, and it now feels even more full-bodied. It affords Mr. Radcliffe, previously on Broadway in “Equus” and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” the chance to deliver his most satisfying stage work to date.
But Mr. Grandage and his first-class ensemble are also here to remind us of the spellbinding narrative power of Mr. McDonagh, whose last new play on Broadway was the disappointing “A Behanding in Spokane” in 2010. What’s more, this production makes a compelling case for “Cripple,” which once felt far too twee to me, as one of Mr. McDonagh’s most substantive plays.
Like most of this dramatist’s work — most prominently the Tony-nominated “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” and “The Pillowman” — “Cripple” is a story about how and why we tell stories. And as is often true with Mr. McDonagh, most of whose plays are set in provincial Ireland, it takes a village to tell a story.
Characters are shaped and warped, destroyed and saved, by the way they talk about one another, spilling secrets and spreading lies. Most of the dissemination comes from Johnnypateenmike (a priceless Pat Shortt, looking like a Dickensian charlatan as drawn by Cruickshank), the self-appointed town crier, who makes his living by swapping morsels of information for food.
When the play begins, in 1934, Johnny has really big news, for once: the film director Robert J. Flaherty has arrived on the nearby island of Inishmore to shoot a movie, “Man of Aran.” (That, for the record, is a fact; the real Flaherty did make that film.)
This exotic visitation is a godsend. Inishmaan is the kind of a place where a boy like Billy passes the hours by staring at cows. This idle pursuit leads to surprisingly lively discussions among his fellow townspeople. But then from the moment he was born, with an irrevocably gnarled left arm and leg, Billy has been a fertile topic of conversation.
For one thing, there’s the mystery of his parents, who are said to have drowned themselves shortly after his birth. Billy has been raised by Eileen and Kate Osbourne (Gillian Hanna and Ingrid Craigie, both wonderful), who are forever fretting about the future of their much-loved but unlovable 17-year-old lad. He is, alas, starting to take an interest in girls, specifically the hot-tempered Helen McCormick (Sarah Greene, in a blissfully fiery performance).
“It’ll end in tears,” Eileen says to Kate, who answers, “Tears or death or worse.” In Inishmaan, everyone expects disaster, usually with good reason. So when Billy, who has been plagued by a suspicious cough, runs away to Inishmore in hopes of being cast in Flaherty’s movie, everyone assumes he’ll never return, at least not alive.
To say the plot thickens from this point is an understatement. Mr. McDonagh puts his characters through a series of whiplash reversals in which distinguishing fact from fiction, malice from affection and heroes from villains becomes a serious challenge. The steady uneventfulness of life in Inishmaan fosters a fiercely combative companionship among its inhabitants, even between a son and his mother, like Johnny’s ancient alcoholic Mammy (June Watson). And the threat of sadism bred by boredom always hovers.
Compared with most of Mr. McDonagh’s work, “Cripple” has a fairly low violence quotient. It’s more comfortably a comedy than, say, “Beauty Queen.” But as outrageously funny as it often is, the play aches with a subliminal sadness that stays with you. The fabrications and speculations that these characters spin, in the fine old tradition of wild Irish yarns, come from an awareness that life is short and dangerous and, perhaps worst of all, empty.
The uniformly excellent cast members here — who also include Conor MacNeill, Padraic Delaney and Gary Lilburn — give us eccentricities that are more than colorful; they’re mottled with shifting shadows and light. In like manner, Christopher Oram’s set and costumes, Paule Constable’s lighting and Alex Baranowski’s gently mournful music convey the earthbound mortality within airy storybook quaintness.
Mr. Radcliffe’s Billy embodies the essence of this beautifully ambivalent play without dominating it, which would throw the production off balance. Despite Billy’s gnarled form, which makes even walking an agonizing process, he often registers as just one of many vivid portraits in a gallery of oddballs. But then he turns his sea-blue stare outward, and the loss and loneliness in his eyes lance right through you.
Of course the odds are that the very next minute you’ll be chuckling away, which doesn’t mean you’ve forgotten that flash of pain. At one point Billy gravely tells his friend, the sweets-addicted Bartley (Mr. MacNeill), who has been making fun of a woman who talks to stones, “You shouldn’t laugh at other people’s misfortunes.”
This greatly perplexes Bartley, whose answer is unrepentant: “But it’s awfully funny.” He’s right, of course. It is. This gorgeously realized production has the wisdom to let us laugh until it hurts.
Never let it be said that Daniel Radclifffe panders - not to expectations of Hollywood glitz nor, especially, to his Harry Potter fan base. Here he is, back on Broadway after his daring 2008 New York debut in "Equus" and his equally courageous, in a different way, 2011 musical-comedy turn in "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." And Daniel Radcliffe is again wonderful, a low-key company player, as the sweet tragic figure, Cripple Billy, born virtually paralyzed on one side and hopping around the rocky, cartoon-Irish gothic landscape in a delightfully deadpan revival of Martin McDonagh's 1996 "The Cripple of Inishmaan."
Billy is not merely crippled and orphaned, but he has what's described as a "bit of a wheeze," and there's a mystery about the drowning death of his parents. Oh, he also stares at cows. He is so bored and lonely on the remote island of Inishmaan that he runs off to Hollywood to do a screen test for a film -- called here by everyone a "fill-em" -- about the locals.
This is New York's third production of McDonagh's incorrigibly rude and gently shrewd satire, inspired by the real 1934 visit of Hollywood director Robert Flaherty to make the silent movie, "Man of Aran." This "Cripple," a London import, is the first to get a Broadway showcase.
Michael Grandage, the Tony-winning director of "Red," directs a lovely cast in the gleeful poetry of outcast inhumanity. Ingrid Craigie and Gillian Hanna are blissfully dim as Billy's loving maiden aunties. One talks to rocks when nervous. Pat Shortt is perfectly irritating as the town snoop, a man called Johnnypateenmike, who recites gossip about sheep deformities from house to house under the guise of journalism. Sarah Greene captures both the terror of the town hellion and her appeal.
The play is subtler than McDonagh's more melodramatic hit gore-fests, especially "The Beauty Queen of Leenane." The worst these townfolk do -- except for the blunt insults -- is "peg" one another with stones and break raw eggs on unsuspecting heads. The work also has none of the political chill of his masterwork, "The Pillowman." He seems here to be both satirizing and celebrating the cliches about primitive Ireland and primal Hollywood, sending up the cruelties and seductions of the parallel universes as mutually exploitable pleasures. How right to have a real movie star as its heart.
Kindness and cruelty pop up in the most unlikely places in Martin McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishmaan.
A master storyteller with both a pitch-black sense of humor and a probing heart, McDonagh has reminded us in his plays where the impulse to spin tales comes from: the need to acknowledge our potential, for both virtue and baseness, while grappling with reality.
In Inishmaan, first produced in London nearly 18 years ago, we meet people for whom telling stories is an especially essential function, given the predictability and drudgery of their lives in the titular small town off the coast of Ireland. When an American film crew arrives on the neighboring island of Inishmore, planning to document the locals, a few find fresh inspiration — among them "Cripple Billy" Claven, an orphaned teenager sheltered by two spinsters, who alternately coddle and belittle him, and shunned or ridiculed by pretty much everyone else.
The marvelous new production (* * * * out of four stars) that marks Inishmaan's Broadway premiere, which opened Sunday at the Cort Theatre, is also based across the pond, where last year it was part of a West End series presented by director Michael Grandage. Grandage has retained his original, mostly Irish ensemble cast, including Daniel Radcliffe, who as Billy delivers his most fully realized and powerful performance on the Main Stem to date.
The marquee star, an Englishman whose father hails from Northern Ireland, nails the accent and makes Billy's physical disability — which requires him to stagger around with considerable effort, using what others mockingly describe as a "shuffle" — painfully authentic. But the performance is most notable for its lack of affectation, for how Radcliffe captures Billy's struggle to be accepted for his goodness and intelligence without flaunting those qualities in ways that would contradict them.
Interacting with his "aunties" and the more colorful townsfolk — the preening old gossip Johnnypateenmike, the pretty but wildly pugnacious Helen McCormick — Radcliffe's Billy conveys the patience and discretion of a precocious child who has learned to respect the limits of others. And as Billy's fortunes fluctuate, sometimes fantastically — Hollywood does come calling, or so it seems, just as questions are raised about how poor his health truly is — we recognize in McDonagh's hero magnified reflections of both human frailty and our capacity to dream.
Guided by Grandage with great faith, feeling and wit, Radcliffe and his superb co-stars also fully serve the trenchant comedy in Inishmaan. Whether observing as Sarah Greene's profanity-spewing Helen tortures Billy or watching Pat Shortt's delightfully ludicrous Johnnypateenmike have at his geriatric, booze-swilling Mammy (a sublime June Watson), you'll laugh in spite of yourself, and them.
Before Inishmaan ends, you'll also be surprised, and moved, by these characters, whose arrival on Broadway proves well worth the prolonged wait.
In “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” Martin McDonagh’s sublime tragi-comedy about life on Ireland’s desolate Aran Islands, there are two old biddies who desperately dote on Daniel Radcliffe — and who wouldn’t? Having earned his legit chops (in “Equus” and “How to Succeed ….”), the grown-up teen idol turns in a warm, sympathetic performance as the sweet-tempered but broken-bodied “cripple” who has long resigned himself to the gleeful cruelty of his cloddish neighbors. The production also gives Gotham its first look at the work of the extraordinary new company formed by Michael Grandage, the estimable one-time artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse.
Maybe it takes a black Irish heart to fully appreciate McDonagh’s savage humor. But from bizarre stage plays like “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” to a psychotic film like “Seven Psychopaths,” the scribe always tempers his killing wit with affection, and even sympathy for his victims.
That’s the way it works with “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” the 1997 play inspired by a visit that the movie director Robert J. Flaherty paid to the isle of Inishmore to film “The Man of Aran,” his seminal 1934 documentary about the primitive way of life (fishing off cliffs, hunting sharks, farming rocks) on the barren limestone islands off the Bay of Galway. In one raucous scene, the earthy residents of Inishmaan hoot and howl and throw eggs at a bedsheet screening of Flaherty’s award-winning film. (“Ah, they’re never going to be catching this fecking shark,” sneers the egg-thrower. “A fecking hour they’ve been at it now.”) It’s a perfect example of McDonagh’s artistry — the sheer hilarity of the comic situation and the aching poignancy of the characters for refusing to see themselves in this wrenching film of their lives.
Unlike his flamboyantly crude, rude, and casually cruel neighbors, Billy (Radcliffe) is a gentle boy who calms his raging feelings by reading books and staring blankly at cows grazing placidly in the fields. The wisp of a plot, which opens with boffo laughs and stealthily advances toward a bitterly ironic ending, turns on the reckless scheme of this sensitive lad to get himself cast in the movie and transported to Hollywood for the filming.
But his thick-skinned neighbors find such merriment in “Cripple Billy’s” physical deformities (which look quite painful in Radcliffe’s realistically limned perf) that they never catch on to the young man’s yearning to leave the island. No more than they pay any mind to his persistent requests for the truth behind the death of his parents, who drowned shortly after he was born. (“That’s pure gossip that they had a sackful of stones tied between themselves,” Billy insists.) Not even his doting foster aunties, the shopkeepers Kate and Eileen Osbourne (played by Ingrid Craigie and Gillian Hanna, comic geniuses with the killer timing of a couple of sharks), are inclined to share that terrible secret with their darling boy.
If anyone does know the whole story behind that mystery, it would be Johnnypateenmike, a monstrously funny rogue in Pat Shortt’s Falstaffian performance. Johnnypateenmike is a scrofulous gossip who has made a flourishing trade of snooping out and peddling “pieces of news” that he delivers with great theatrical flourish. For good reason, that old rascal’s lips are sealed on this subject — although there’s always the chance that his vindictive mother, an evil old hag in June Watson’s priceless performance, might spill the beans. McDonagh’s sly point here seems to be that Irish humor, so wickedly cutting and clever, doesn’t always mean to inflict pain. There are times when the marvelous musical verbiage that rolls off the silver tongues of the Irish can serve as secretive, even protective camouflage for truths better not spoken.
None of the garrulous natives on Inishmaan seem the least bit daunted by the bleakness of this godforsaken island, with the possible exception of Babbybobby (Padraic Delaney, his face a tight mask of pure pain), a fisherman who recently lost his beloved wife to tuberculosis. But the harshness of the setting doesn’t go unnoticed by the design team. Working with the meanest of materials — raw wood, rough stone, and dirty old rags — set and costume designer Christopher Oram creates vivid images of human life as it’s lived on this limestone rock in the middle of the sea. Hearing the crashing waves and the eerie cries of seabirds and the mournful folk music supplied by composer and sound designer Alex Baranowski, it’s easy to understand how the intolerable loneliness of the place has worked its way into Billy’s bones.
As insensitive as they are to Billy’s misery, it’s doubtful that any of his neighbors has even noticed how deeply and desperately he’s in love with Helen, the foul-mouthed egg-thrower at the film screening. A gorgeous red-headed witch of a girl in Sarah Greene’s delicious performance, Helen is as fierce as she is beautiful, a heartless tyrant who physically torments her brother Bartley (Conor MacNeill, who must be a mass of bruises) and shamelessly teases all the horny priests on the island. In Greene’s positively edible portrayal, the divine Helen is all filthy thoughts and foul mouth behind an angelically lovely face. That’s an irresistible combination for every man, boy and priest on the island, and poor Billy is all too aware that this grubby goddess is out of his league.
Unless, of course, someone in his tribe takes pity and teaches him how to survive as they do — with a thick skin, a wicked sense of humor, and the occasional act of kindness.