A Behanding In Spokane Doth Protest Too Much

Irish (by way of London) playwright Martin McDonagh shot to theater stardom on the strength of three plays written in the late 1990s set in County Galway. Ghosts, both real and metaphorical, swirled about those three works, and while his next works broached bigger socio-political issues, it was still steeped in Irish dialogue and concerns.

McDonagh made a big departure in 2010 with his very dark comedy A Behanding In Spokane. His first play set in the United States, Spokane feels more like a movie script than the well-made, more lyrically based plays of his earlier career. That might be indicative of his shift toward Hollywood 10 years ago (he penned and directed In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths). Spokane feels more like the latter film in terms of tone and character, with no small degree of the Coen Brothers' twisted psychology at work.

It's a grimy little play filled with dismembered hands, meth-heads, low-level drug dealers, and a central character that is as unlikeable and menacing as they come. N-bombs and F-bombs (both the sexual-action kind as well as the sexual-orientation kind) fly throughout the play. It's a tough ride for the blue-hairs, and one can only applaud the Costa Mesa Playhouse and director Michael Serna for choosing such a decidedly un-community-theater production, considering the venue—located next to an elementary school—houses the Newport Mesa Unified School District's Save Our Youth program, a nonprofit organization designed, in part, to keep teenagers from traversing the rocky paths that lead to people winding up in the onerous conditions we find in this play.

Spokane begins with Carmichael (a strong and mysterious Peter Hilton) sitting on a bed in a threadbare motel room in the titular city. He hears muffled screams in a closet, pulls out a gun and fires a shot. That brings the spun-out receptionist, Mervyn (the always talented Angel Correa), into the room, and we quickly see that whatever quest has brought Carmichael to this dingy roach trap is catnip to Angel. Soon, Marilyn (Zoe Fiske, who could use a bit more edge) arrives with a small package for Carmichael, who then frees her boyfriend, Toby (a believably frightened Jeff Rolle Jr.), the aforementioned muffled screamer.

Only problem is, the contents of the package don't exactly fit. Carmichael has arrived in Spokane to retrieve his missing hand, which was sliced off some 27 years before by a bunch of hillbillies who tied him to a railroad track. But it's pretty obvious that the hand Marilyn has retrieved isn't Carmichael's, who is now as hell-bent as ever on retrieving the real one.

The action never shifts from the room, although there is a long, direct-address monologue delivered by Mervyn halfway through about being fascinated by gibbons in the zoo, as well as two lengthy conversations with Carmichael's mother over the phone. Mostly what we get is slow character reveal. But with the exception of Carmichael, these characters really aren't that interesting. That makes everything except the plot's resolution seem perfunctory.

And that dilutes what is the most important part of this play: its building tension. While Correa is both funny and believable as a recovering (or current?) meth addict, the lack of center to his character grows tiring after a while. Toby and Marilyn, meanwhile, are just two relative kids in way over their heads, but amid their constant bickering, it's difficult to get a read on what function they play other than being unwitting patsies in a story far more twisted than they could have anticipated.

There are several allusions in the play about the decaying fabric of American society, and perhaps McDonagh took a page from the Sam Shepard playbook and opted to write an insular play about people on the fringes of America and what that says about the lack of American moral character. Nothing wrong with that. But the Hollywood-ish emphasis on shock and vulgarity (again, nothing wrong with either) at the expense of theme and fully rounded characters undermines what is his signature gift: his skillful use of dialogue. It's an ugly little play filled with ugly little characters, and while it's clear the main character's destination is meant to remind all of us that the things we lose and obsess to reclaim are probably better confined to memory, the journey there—at least in this play—doesn't seem worth the ride.

But there's enough twisted humor and strong work onstage to look past the failure of the story. And, again, it's the latest evidence that the Costa Mesa Playhouse is not content to provide safe, predictable fare to its core audience. Spokane may be a play that doth protest much and eventually says very little, but it's nice to see any sound and fury on a local stage.

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