Keegan’s A Behanding in Spokane, one of the season’s best comedies

A one-handed man on a cross-country odyssey to find his missing hand, waits in a squalid hotel room for two equally squalid visitors. Then, the story turns odd. Not to mention violent, shocking, and most of all, darkly comic in Irish playwright Martin McDonough’s latest work, A Behanding in Spokane, now making its area premiere in an outstanding production by Keegan Theatre.   

The entire story takes place in that hotel bedroom that could serve as the dictionary definition of seedy, thanks to the wonderful work of set designer (and director) Colin Smith.  The torn and stained wallpaper, the radiator with peeling paint, the stained rug and doors, and the window that looks out into a brick alley with a fire escape all foreshadow the amusing low-rent characters we will soon meet.

Manu Kumasi, Mark A. Rhea and Laura Herren (Photo: C. Stanley Photography)

Manu Kumasi, Mark A. Rhea and Laura Herren (Photo: C. Stanley Photography)

Carmichael, the one-handed man (played by a marvelously disheveled Mark Rhea) is seeking to purchase what could be his missing hand from Toby (Manu Kumasi) and Marilyn (Laura Herren).

Toby is a petty drug dealer who is African American, a fact important only because Carmichael was raised by his mother to be a white supremacist.

Marilyn is Toby’s apple-cheeked, cute but not terribly bright girlfriend (she gets mad at her boyfriend for not challenging Carmichael’s insulting remarks despite the fact the obviously dangerous Carmichael is pointing a pistol at Toby).

The final member of this assortment of oddballs is Mervyn (Bradley Foster Smith), the nosy “receptionist guy” at the hotel.

Toby and Marilyn have made the decision to con Carmichael out of $500 by selling him a hand that cannot possibly be his.  That’s a bad decision, given Carmichael’s sadistic tendencies and the unusual and dangerous items he carries in the bags clearly displayed center at the start of the play. Carmichael is not a man you want to anger.

Theatregoers who have seen some of McDonough’s other plays (such as The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Lieutenant of Inishmore) may be familiar with his unusual mixture of black comedy and brutality with a Grand Guignol sensibility.  Yet even those familiar with McDonough’s body of work will be surprised by the moments of outrageous action and uncomfortable humor.  The adult dialogue features frequent use of the “N word,” the “MF phrase,” and even a solo appearance of the “C word.”  Racism, homophobia, and misogyny?  Check, check, and check.

Bradley Foster Smith (Photo: C. Stanley Photography)

Bradley Foster Smith (Photo: C. Stanley Photography)

The Broadway production of A Behanding in Spokane was mostly notable for the Broadway debut of Christopher Walken as Carmichael.  While Walken’s peculiar tics and vocal inflections were amusing, I found the Keegan Theatre production superior to the Broadway version for many of the same reasons that I enjoyed Studio Theatre’s production of The Motherfucker with the Hat.

This cast achieves a greater degree of realism and emotional connection than the Broadway cast, which often seemed to be playing to the rear mezzanine.  The intimate theatre setting helps the actors modulate their performances.  Director Colin Smith knows how to use the fast-talking humor of scared individuals, yet he keeps the histrionics in check.

Perhaps the best example of this occurs in the unusual relationship that develops between Carmichael and Mervyn.  Mervyn is a loner (except for his connection to a certain simian) who dreams of being a hero.  He’s the kind of guy who, when he hears a gunshot, does not call the police. Instead, he goes up to the shooter’s room to ask why he fired a gun.  Bradley Foster Smith’s portrait of the strangely eccentric Mervyn is a superlative character performance, especially when he delivers an extended, strangely compelling monologue directly to the audience.

Highly Recommended
A Behanding in Spokane
Closes April 6, 2013
Church Street Theater 
1742 Church Street, NW
Washington, DC
1 hour 30 minutes without intermission
Tickets: $30 – $35
Thursdays thru Sundays
Details
Tickets
The other members of the cast give fine performances as well.  Mark Rhea’s Carmichael is a haunted and unpredictable man.  He makes the character less cartoonish that he appears on the page and he wordlessly conveys the character’s closing revelation with a touching emotional impact.  Laura Herren takes the stereotypical crook’s dumb girlfriend role and finds a way to make Marilyn simply human while still funny.  Finally, Manu Kumasi has outstanding comic gifts as a scared and emotional small-time criminal.

A Behanding in Spokane, the first McDonough play set in the U.S.A., is not without its flaws.  The humor is uneven and some lengthy telephone conversations slow down the action.  It is not McDonough’s strongest work.

Yet the explosive bursts of humor, the macabre nature of the plot, and the terrific character-driven performances make Keegan Theatre’s production of A Behanding in Spokane one of the most memorable and entertaining plays of the season.

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A Behanding in Spokane by Martin McDonagh . Directed by Colin Smith . Featuring Mark A. Rhea, Bradley Foster Smith, Manu Kumasi and Laura Herron . Assistant Director: Sherri Herren . Set Designer: Colin Smith . Lighting Designer: Megan Thrift . Costume Designer: Kelly Peacock . Sound Designer:  Tony Angelini . Hair and Make-up Designer: Craig Miller . Set Dressing and Properties Designer: Carol Baker . Set Dressing and Properties Assistant: Katrina Wiskup . Stage Managers: Alexis Rose and Dan Deiter . Produced by Keegan Theatre . Reviewed by Steven McKnight

 

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Other reviews:

John Glass . DramaUrge
Chris Klimek . City Paper
Barbara Mackay . Washington Examiner
Robert Michael Oliver . MDTheatreGuide
Alexis Victoria Hauk . DCist
Kim Moeller . DCMetroTheaterArts
Celia Wren . Washington Post
Gwendolyn Purdom . Washingtonian
Bob Ashby . ShowBizRadio
John Stoltenberg . MagicTime!

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