#JoyAlert. Even while many ingredients are well known and commonly used, the combination here connects deeply. That’s what arch types do. Willow McCarthy mesmerizing as our little reader and revolutionary. Bryce Ryness crucial as the iron-breasted Miss Trunchbull. Though it must be said he simply channels the great David Thewlis.
If you’re a regional theatre, going to Broadway sounds like a dream. But unless you know what you’re doing, taking a show to the world’s toughest theatre market can play out more like a nightmare. It’s tough. And very few can pull it off.
On paper, southern Oregon would seem an unlikely incubator IN THE EXTREME for Broadway buzz. 100 years ago, Ashland, Oregon was (to put it mildly) in the middle of nowhere. It still is. But today nowhere is somewhere – at least in the theatre world. And thanks to Angus Bowmer, a whole phalanx of succeeding individuals, and a good mix of sheer chance and historical luck, Oregon Shakespeare Festival has become a Broadway launching pad. Incredible but true.
While it’s too soon to say for sure, another OSF-hatched American Revolutions world premiere may soon be headed for the world’s biggest stage.
I have referenced Irish Times theater critic Fintan O’Toole’s legendary slam of Martin McDonagh’s 2010 Broadway play A BEHANDING IN SPOKANE (which O’Toole called a “disaster”) enough times, I finally had to go and subscribe to the IT so that I could get access to the review in the digital archives.
Here it is for you.
Arch McDonagh takes a wrong turn to dead-end Americana
March 20, 2010
CULTURE SHOCK: For this awful, knowing parody in the Tarantino genre, McDonagh should return to his superior, terrible beauties.
EVEN FOR admirers of Martin McDonagh (present company included), it is almost a relief that, before reaching 40 this month, he has finally hatched a turkey. Ever since the opening night of The Beauty Queen of Leenane in Galway in February 1996, the only thing that has slowed the progress of the Irish theatre’s wunderkind has been the deep drift of bouquets and laurels he has had to wade through. Some of us had begun to wonder whether the legal firm of Lucifer Beelzebub and Mephistopheles didn’t have a contract on file signed in suspiciously garish red ink. This, after all, is a writer who put together a little film so he could learn how to direct ( Six Shooter) and won an Oscar for it.
Given the flamboyance of McDonagh’s career, it is fitting that his new play on Broadway, A Behanding in Spokane, is a prince among turkeys – golden, organic and butter-basted. And the totality of the play’s failure may, in the long run, make it one of the most useful things he has done. Most major playwrights – indeed most serious artists – learn more from their disasters than from their triumphs. In that sense, A Behandingshould be a defining experience for McDonagh. It clarifies – for the viewer and perhaps for himself – the nature of his mercurial, mysterious talent by defining the ground over which it does not travel.
Understanding that the play is, indeed, very bad is not quite as straightforward as it should be. When people are paying $130 (€95) a ticket to get into the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre and greeting the curtain call with standing ovations, it is easy to fall for defensive delusions. But the poverty of the play is masked by Christopher Walken’s mesmerising performance in the central role of Carmichael, who lost a hand in his youth and has spent the rest of his life searching for it. As masks go, Walken would grace the most lavish Venetian carnival. He would be magnetic if he stood on stage reading the assembly instructions for an Ikea flat-pack sofa, and a lot of people would pay $130 to witness the act.
Walken is indeed magnificent here, and he clearly relishes McDonagh’s language and humour. McDonagh’s work always walks a line between the grotesque and the playful, between horror and hilarity. And nobody knows that line as well as Walken does. Every Walken take is a double take. He’s one of the very few actors who can have his tongue in his cheek at the same time as his teeth are in your flesh. He is a refugee from both Samuel Beckett (he has himself got up like the ghostly protagonist of Ohio Impromptu) and a schlock thriller. He is genuinely terrifying and not at all serious. The weird smile that plays around his lips is simultaneously an expression of psychosis and of knowing bonhomie. While he’s on stage (for about half the 90 minutes of the show), you can almost believe that there’s a play going on here.
The downside is that when Walken walks off stage (or rather climbs out the window of the dingy motel room in which all the action unfolds), there’s an almost palpable shock of realisation that the rest is not merciful silence but lame chatter. McDonagh has, among other things, always been a brilliant parodist – of John B Keane and Tom Murphy, of Synge and Beckett, of Pinter and the Brothers Grimm. But here he’s parodying himself: A Behandingfeels like nothing so much as an over-extended skit on McDonagh’s favourite tics – the meta-theatrical game-playing, the grand guignol of stray body parts (in this case a collection of severed hands), the repetitions and reversals of the dialogue, the self-conscious absurdities of plot. A parody of a parody may be the ultimate in post-modern theatre but it also proves in practice how blind an alley all this knowingness can become.
The problem becomes a simple one: A Behanding isn’t funny. The opening five minutes are grimly hilarious, and there are a few good jokes along the way.
But the action is far too slack for a successful farce. (Even the mechanics are extraordinarily lazy: the little grifters that Carmichael ties to the heating pipes are within reach of a phone but it doesn’t occur to them to call the cops.) And it’s far too self-satisfied to be outrageous. Sam Rockwell, who plays the motel receptionist, is a fine actor, but when he’s left to carry the burden of comic invention, it turns out to be an empty basket.
The question of taste also arises here. McDonagh has long been a master of bad taste (not at all the same thing as having no taste at all). But it’s been grounded in character – he gets away with pushing boundaries because he convinces you that this is what the character might actually say. But here there is no characterisation worth talking about. When Carmichael talks repeatedly of “niggers” and “fags”, and one of his captives, the ditzy Marilyn (Zoe Kazan) criticises his racism and homophobia, there’s a sense that McDonagh is not so much having his cake and eating it as licking the icing and then spitting it out. He wants the shock value but not the consequences.
A Behanding is like the can of gasoline that Carmichael places in the room with a lit candle on top – it never ignites. For all the elements of contrived controversy, it is actually rather tame. And this surely says something about McDonagh’s imagination. All games, however fancy, have to be played on solid ground. McDonagh’s brilliant stagecraft, his linguistic cleverness and his gifts as a fabulist have always had a ground beneath them. His versions of the West of Ireland, of the Northern Ireland conflict or of the dark world of childhood imagination may have large elements of parody but they are parodies of something real. That element of reality, however playfully refracted, anchors his humour and invention in genuine human emotions.
A Behanding is anchored only in what has always been the worst of McDonagh’s many sources of influence: Quentin Tarantino. It attempts the same kind of self-referential, movie-saturated, rather arch Americana.
McDonagh turns out to be no good at it. For me, at least, that is a cause for celebration. He is much, much better than Tarantino will ever be. When he remembers that, he may look back on the disaster of A Behanding as the mudslide that blocked a road he should not go down.
If it shows him where he shouldn’t go, it may also point him in the right direction – towards a deeper engagement with theterrible humour of humanity.
It doesn’t take all that much to get on Irish Times theatre critic Fintan O’Toole’s shit list. But to rise to the remote and windy top of that list is no small achievement. For O’Toole has been reviewing Irish theatre at home and abroad for decades. And many, many shows meet with – well, start reading him and you’ll see.
The list of pans and slams is long, so you’d think that singling out an all time worst from the list of candidates would be challenging for O’Toole. Apparently not. While some Irish fans may feel slighted that this elite honor goes out of country, no doubt most will be delighted to hear an American is wearing the laurels.
Despite the odds, John Patrick Shanley has brought home gold with his “Irish play” OUTSIDE MULLINGAR, now on at Seattle Rep. In O’Toole’s annual recap of Irish cultural highs and lows for 2014, he named Shanley’s play as including “perhaps the worst single line I’ve heard in the theater.” We won’t spoil the drama. You’ll have to go and find out which line it was. Though it won’t initially be easy to pick out just one.
It’s amazing what a Tony nomination and a famous playwright’s name can do. This nonsensical story, projected onto a culture that is apparently as foreign to Shanley as Timbuktu, is now making the rounds of mediocre American regional theater. And nothing draws an unthinking stateside smile faster than a bad Irish accent on stage. No matter how far from reality the representation of Ireland may be, as long as someone drinks a beer, makes a joke about the rain, and says “shite”, all is well. When this sort of slapstick gets really, really bad it’s pure greenface.
Culture Shock: ‘Outside Mullingar’, and beyond the edge of awfulness
All the hokum that had been happily discarded became, in Martin McDonagh’s hands, a workable proposition again. It didn’t occur to me that an intelligent American dramatist such as John Patrick Shanley might look at those plays and miss all the layers of mockery and irony and manipulation.
Feb 22, 2014
When plays are bad, their badness is usually easy to explain. Occasionally, though, there is a play whose woefulness demands a whole new theory. John Patrick Shanley’s faux-Irish drama Outside Mullingar , currently on Broadway, is mystifyingly awful. The obvious explanation, that Shanley can’t write, doesn’t get us very far. He won the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Doubt , and an Oscar for Moonstruck . Neither is especially to my taste, but they are at worst highly competent and professional. They don’t prepare you for the moments in Outside Mullingar when you find yourself shaking your head in abject, surrendered, uncomprehending disbelief.
After much reflection, my theory about Outside Mullingar is what we might call the McDonagh Effect. Martin McDonagh took the ramshackle old Irish naturalistic play, with its odd mix of kitchen comedy and 19th-century melodrama, and made it look both easy and viable. All the old hokum that had been happily discarded became, in his hands, a workable proposition again. If you were Irish, of course, it was also obvious that his was a postmodern version of Irish hokum, utterly self-aware, drenched in irony, deliberately anachronistic and brilliantly deployed to manipulate an audience’s expectations.
It didn’t occur to me, at least, that an intelligent American dramatist might look at those McDonagh plays and miss all the layers of mockery and irony and manipulation. That it would be possible to think, Great, the Abbey play of the 1940s is up for grabs again – and to think this in all innocence, with no hint of malicious intent. The only way I can explain Outside Mullingar is to assume that poor Shanley was misled in this way. Even this doesn’t explain why nobody, especially the Irish people involved in the production, had a quiet word to put him right.
Outside Mullingar is set, well, outside Mullingar. The time is given in the programme as “recently”: we know this because there are references to Irish boxers winning medals at the Olympics. As the old farmer Tony Reilly (played by Peter Maloney) puts it, in a line that is all too typical, “Sure, we’re good with our fists, no surprise there.” But theatrically, it is set in a different time and place: the Abbey, some time between 1930 and 1959.
If you were to do a random cut-up of the rural social comedies that were the staple diet of that period, you would more than likely end up with most of the following elements: a funeral, cups of tea, a dispute about land, a dying parent, a will, a returned Yank, an ageing virgin son and the headstrong woman he is secretly in love with but has never got around to informing of his feelings. If you shuffled those cards a few times, you’d come up with the bones of Outside Mullingar . To complete the job, you’d have to have mistaken McDonagh’s dark surrealism for Oirish quirkiness and added enough of that to tip the whole thing from mere dullness into embarrassment.
In Outside Mullingar , we begin in Tony’s kitchen after the funeral of his nearest neighbour. We quickly establish three things. Tony is thinking of cutting his son, Anthony (played by Brían F O’Byrne), out of his will and leaving the farm to a Yankee nephew. The Reillys have been in dispute with the neighbour about a right of way. (The term “land-grabbing” is, I’m afraid, inevitable.) And the disputed land has passed to the neighbour’s daughter, the fiery Rosemary Muldoon (played by Debra Messing – Grace from Will & Grace ).
I would normally be careful about revealing how it all works out, but in this case it will hardly surprise readers that the resolution will involve two elements: (a) a deathbed scene of more than usually revolting sentimentality in which Tony makes it all right with Anthony; and (b) Anthony and Rosemary finally getting around to wearing the face off each other.
All of this would be weird in itself, especially as the pastiche of midcentury Irish drama is always slightly off-kilter. Shanley’s ear for Irish speech – he has cousins outside Mullingar – is not well enough tuned to avoid having people “go to church” or “pass on”. Messing’s Rosemary tries so hard at an Irish accent that her voice ends up drowning in the Atlantic. It doesn’t help that her mother is played by Dearbhla Molloy, whose precise characterisation makes you wonder where her daughter came from.
But what makes the whole thing almost unfathomably bad is that Shanley has some vague sense that McDonagh’s plays do something more. Hence we have rain falling outside the cottage window as in the Druid production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane and the casting of O’Byrne from that same production. Rosemary has elements of Slippy Helen from The Cripple of Inishmaan , and her resentment of Anthony goes back to a McDonaghesque childish slight. Worst of all, Anthony’s big revelation is an unintended parody of the way McDonagh inserts oddities and nonsequiturs. He explains that he has stayed away from Rosemary all these years because “I think I’m a bee”. This is not a joke or a metaphor: he thinks he’s a bee. I tried to convince myself that I was an ice-cube so I could melt into the ground in embarrassment.