With his Golden Globe-winning, Oscar-nominated Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri (2017), Martin McDonagh has seen his film career reach new heights. But many theater lovers would argue that he has done his best writing for the stage. Anyone who saw The Beauty Queen of Leenane (1996) at the Atlantic Theater or on Broadway nearly 20 years ago will never forget its potent blend of dark English humor and violence.
Twists and turns
Well, McDonagh has done it again. Hangmen, which is making its American debut in the same cozy Chelsea theater where Beauty Queen first made audiences gasp, is masterful. It is beautifully constructed, with twists and turns and bits of information popping up to keep the audience guessing.
And, as we’ve come to expect, McDonagh finds humor in situations where one would never expect to find any. To top it off, the production couldn’t be better, thanks to pitch-perfect direction from Matthew Dunster and flawless performances from the 12-person cast.
The play opens in a jail cell in northern England in 1963. The cell’s occupant is Hennessy (Gilles Geary), who is joined by the hangman Harry Wade (Mark Addy) and his assistant Syd (Reece Shearsmith). Hennessy protests his innocence, claiming his conviction for raping a girl in Norfolk is wrongful because he has never been there.
“I will come back to whatever northern s___hole you live in and haunt you,” Hennessy says.
“Well, that’s not a nice thing to say, is it?” Syd replies.
After a bit more banter, Hennessy exclaims, “I’m getting hung by nincompoops!”
“‘Hanged,’” Syd corrects him. Hennessy does, in fact, get hanged, and it’s not nearly as gruesome as it would be if this were a McDonagh film.
After an impressively swift scenery change, the setting switches to a bar in Oldham, Lancashire. It’s two years later, and we’re in Harry’s homey pub. Surrounded by his loyal patrons, Harry leads a toast to the end of hanging in England.
Into this friendly assemblage of borderline alcoholics comes an outsider, Peter Mooney (Johnny Flynn). A slender Londoner with a shag haircut, Mooney says he wants to rent a room. The longer he waits around, the more menacing Mooney seems.
He also flirts with Harry’s shy, mopey teenage daughter Shirley (Gaby French). Syd turns up and reveals some possibly disturbing information about Harry’s potential lodger.
There are plenty of questions in Hangmen. Some get answered definitively, and others don’t. Was Hennessy’s hanging a miscarriage of justice? Why was Harry away when certain prisoners were hanged? Why does Mooney want to rent a room in this town? And is he a smooth charmer, a sociopath, or both? McDonagh tackles questions of crimes and punishments within a very enjoyable play.
Having grabbed the audience right from the start, McDonagh unspools his story beautifully. The plot turns darker, and Dunster’s staging manipulates our emotions as brilliantly as McDonagh’s writing.
Joshua Carr’s moody lighting helps adjust the tone from scene to scene. The sound of rain and thunder (by Ian Dickinson for Autograph) also contributes to the increasing sense of danger. The lived-in set and costumes are by Anna Fleischle.
As in his other great plays, such as The Cripple of Inishmaan (1996) and The Lieutenant of Inishmore (2001), McDonagh expertly combines light jokes and black humor with repellant behavior and surprising violence. It’s a tricky balancing act, but McDonagh pulls it off with his wry dialogue and assured plotting.
No one else writing today could come up with such uproarious gallows humor. The play has some of Joe Orton’s sly wit, and it is creepily insinuating like Harold Pinter’s best work. At the end, Harry and Syd recall the lovable movie odd couple Laurel and Hardy.
The production comes to the Atlantic Theater from London’s Royal Court Theatre. Flynn played the role of Mooney both at the Royal Court and in the West End. He gives a mesmerizing performance, exuding charm one moment and malevolence the next.
Addy is also wonderful as Harry, the proud former hangman who has nothing but contempt for his longtime rival in the hanging business, Albert Pierrepoint (Maxwell Caulfield). Shearsmith is priceless as the clueless Syd, French is memorable as Shirley, and Sally Rogers is just right as her caring but critical mother Alice. As the rather deaf Arthur, the oldest regular in Harry’s pub, John Horton is a delight. Five of the 12 actors are British; the whole ensemble is superb.
Hangmen sold out quickly at the Atlantic. If the production moves to Broadway this spring, which is very likely, many more theatergoers will be able to see this deviously entertaining play. Whether or not McDonagh finally wins a much-deserved Tony Award—he has been nominated four times before—it is great to have him back on the boards in top form.
Hangmen is at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater through March 7. The run is sold out.