By Warren Francke
A Behanding in Spokane is the Blue Barn at its best with Kevin Lawler directing Thomas Becker as Cunningham, the grim sociopath in search of his missing left hand.
Quick perspective: This company’s treatment of such Edward Albee plays as Three Tall Women and The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? along with Vieux Carre by Tennessee Williams rank near the top of my lifetime of theater-going experiences.
I didn’t expect this darkest of comedies by Martin McDonagh to make that list. I’ve enjoyed the Irishman’s plays produced by Brigit St. Brigit but not as much as others in that theater’s many highlights. And the critics appreciated McDonagh’s The Pillowman much more than I did. Add such oddities as the New York Times downplaying the Behanding script while raving about Christopher Walken as Cunningham.
In short, I loved it from the moment we see Becker sitting on his bed in a sad hotel, staring out silently. It was one of those times when everything looked just right, quietly bristling with promise of what’s to come.
We hear frantic rapping on a door. Not from the hallway, but a closet. The grim Cunningham, a stub where his left hand was and a gun in his right hand, pulls open the door and blasts away. Someone inside cries out.
Later we learn that the occupant, bound up inside, is Toby, a black con man played by Raydell Cordell III, who with his little girl friend Marilyn (Olivia Sather) tries to pass off a hand they’ve stolen from a museum to fleece $500 from the hand-seeker.
It happens to be an aboriginal hand from Australia, which angers Cunningham. When Marilyn chastises him for using the N-word to describe the hand, he blames them for bringing him a hand demanding his N-word.
When Toby sends him off after another promised hand, enters Mervyn, the hotel receptionist played by Vincent Carlson-Brown, who finds the inept con couple handcuffed to the radiator with a candle burning over a red gasoline can. They tried to put it out by throwing shoes at it, but now plead with Mervyn, the man they earlier found exercising in boxer shorts, to extinguish the flame.
Well, we know from his previous monologue that Mervyn needs excitement in his life. First, he was fascinated to hear the story of the missing hand, but his needs go so far as to wishing he’d experienced a high school massacre.
Not to explore that too deeply, suffice it to say both critics and Cunningham himself have decided that Mervyn has a death wish, and that seems likely when he later taunts the man, suggesting that most folks with missing hands have self-mutilated.
But I beg to differ a bit. Mervyn is pretty clear that he’d rather do heroic rescue than be a victim. Yes, he walks a risky line with Cunningham, but even that’s better than the boredom of exercising in his boxer shorts while commanding the lobby of a fleabag hotel.
Before introducing a fifth character we never see or hear, it’s time to more fully praise this cast. Sather and Cordell keep us focused on their plight, even when falling into foul-mouthed rants, and Carlson-Brown delivers as quirky and distinctive performance as one is likely to see this entire season.
But Becker so completely inhabits his determined sociopath that we wouldn’t even consider trading him for the fascinating weirdness of Christopher Walken. Early on, when he’s mainly the driven avenger, he adds another dimension in a bizarre phone conversation with his mother, that fifth character.
Seems she climbed a tree to remove a balloon and fell, breaking both ankles. That, of course, angers her son. Later she talks to Toby, who urges her to call for help and learned she doesn’t want police showing up.
You’ll guess that she has her reasons, which are also likely to anger Cunningham. And so it goes in what director Lawler called “a roller-coaster ride.”
I’ve attended a few plays where others were laughing a lot more than I was. Not this time. I was surprised at how often just a few of us laughed at lines that I loved. Don’t take this one too seriously.
Same goes for two other plays seen in recent days. The University of Nebraska at Omaha offers the two-letter plus comma title, Or, which could be a serious look at the first female playwright in England of the 1660s, but chooses instead to make sport with Scottie Pace and Victoria Luther doing quick-changes in multiple roles.
And the one-night-only staged reading of Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake) was another rewarding treat from the Omaha Community Playhouse 21 & Over series. Most memorable: Eric Salonis as The Apartment and Leanne Hill Carlson as an amazingly believable 11-year-old.
A Behanding in Spokane runs Feb. 21 to March 16 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 6 p.m. March 3 and 10 at the Blue Barn Theatre, 614 S. 11th St., 614 S. 11th St. Tickets are $25, $20 students and seniors. Call 402.345.1576 or visit bluebarn.org.