A Behanding in Spokane
In the opening seconds of Martin McDonagh’s A Behanding in Spokane, a sullen man in a shabby hotel room fires a gun into a closet from which groans are heard, and then makes a phone call that begins with a cheery, "Hi, Mom." Oh, and said man is noticeably missing a left hand.
In the 2010 Broadway production, this mystery man was played by Christopher Walken, an actor whose famously ultra-creepy persona doesn’t provide much room for surprises. At SF Playhouse, where the latest play by the author of Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Lieutenant of Inishmore is having its regional premiere, Rod Gnapp as the behanded Carmichael gives the audience the opportunity of discovery. It’s a blank slate that over the course of the 90-minute play Gnapp fills in with intriguingly idiosyncratic detail. It’s a wonderful performance that somehow manages to be both understated and over the top.
For those familiar with McDonagh’s plays, Spokane still has surprises, even though we are in the playwright’s signature world of grotesquery that continuously elbows its way into hilarity. This is a story of a single-minded quest. Carmichael wants to find the hand that was severed 27 years ago, even though he knows the shriveled appendage can be no more than a symbolic triumph over the sadistic "hillbillies" who blithely occasioned the amputation.
The reward that Carmichael offers has brought forth dozens of opportunists with hands in hand, and the play unfolds as a pair of small-time scammers tries to convince Carmichael that they have what he wants. When it quickly becomes obvious that they don’t, a perverse burlesque begins that includes racial and homophobic epithets, handcuffs, sob stories, absurd banter, a tank of gasoline, and a hotel receptionist whose passions waver between freeing all gibbons from zoos and being a hero in a Columbine-type massacre.
Behanding may not be as complex or nuanced as McDonagh’s earlier plays, but it is still a queasily enjoyable thrill ride. Director Susi Damilano’s production (on Bill English’s expertly seedy set) captures the veering tones and emotions that come with a McDonagh script, and in addition to Gnapp, the cast is sharply filled in its three other roles. Daveed Diggs and Melissa Quine play a kind of biracial poor-man’s Bonnie and Clyde, who humorously (and at times disturbingly) bumble their misbegotten foray into larceny. Alex Hurt is the seemingly dimwitted hotel clerk who still manages to hold his own in the company of con artists.
A Behanding in Spokane actually comes with something of a happy ending, but also with the message that a dream realized is also a dream that has ended. Sometimes one hand is actually better than two.
A Behanding in Spokane will run through June 30 at SF Playhouse. Tickets are $20-$70. Call 677-9596 or go to www.sfplayhouse.org.