New York City Theater
Linda Gross Theater
Boiling oil, asphyxiation, dismemberment, drowning – all are grist for playwright Martin McDonagh’s black comedies. In the Bible, it’s the Lord who saith, “Vengeance is mine.” In McDonagh’s works, including his Oscar-nominated “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” characters are the avengers. Punishment is not always swift but, when it comes, it’s devastating.
In McDonagh’s latest, “Hangmen,” a Royal Court Theater production at the Atlantic Theater Company, gallows humor – literally – vies with intimidation. Both funny and frightening, sometimes at the same time, the work suffers from the cast’s often indecipherable north-England dialect. (Stephen Gabbis is the dialect coach.)
We open in 1963. Hennessy, convicted of murder, is about to be hanged by an impatient-for-breakfast, no-nonsense executioner named Harry. Protesting his innocence, fighting for his life by death-gripping his bedstead, Hennessy is miffed that he’s not to be offed by the country’s number one hangman, Albert Pierrepoint. Aghast and insulted, Harry claims, “I’m just as good as bloody Pierrepoint!” (Harry and Albert are based on actual British hangmen.)
In the opinion of Syd, Harry’s mousy assistant, the doomed man is just wasting time. “If you’d’ve just tried to relax you could’ve been dead by now,” says Syd. To which Hennessy replies, “I’m getting hung by nincompoops,” in turn prompting Syd’s hilariously fussy grammatical correction, “You’re getting ‘hanged’ by nincompoops.”
Two years later, on the day hanging is abolished in Great Britain, Harry now owns a dreary pub where he and his wife, Alice, pull pints for layabout cronies. Clegg, a journalist, wants to interview Harry but Harry, boasting “I’ve been a servant of the Crown,” will say nothing at first. In comes Mooney, a well-dressed toff from London, (a superb Johnny Flynn), who orders peanuts with his pint.
Questions are raised; not all are fully answered. Nefarious doings are hinted at. Who is the bigoted Mooney, self-described as “menacing not creepy”? What’s he doing here? What’s his relationship with Harry, Alice and their nubile, shy teen-age daughter Shirley? How does he know Syd?
For all his hints at Pinteresque menace, McDonagh is here as interested in atmosphere as in plot. There’s lots of palaver about horseracing and drinking, marking “Hangmen” as biding time, though ending in a burst of hilarious terror.
Director Matthew Dunster has a sure hand with the play’s various tones. It can’t be easy to meld ennui and action, jokes and dread. If Flynn is outstanding as Mooney it is at least partly because the character best embodies the evening’s timbres.
The acting is excellent from Mark Addy’s blustering Harry to Reece Shearsmith’s milquetoast Syd, Sally Rogers’ long-suffering Alice, Maxwell Caulfield’s challenging Albert, Gaby French’s Shirley, maturing before our eyes, Gilles Geary’s terrified Hennessy and the rest of the 12-person cast.
Anna Fleischle does wonders with multiple set locations on the Atlantic’s small stage, gloomily lit by Joshua Carr. This could be the pub around the corner which, like “Hangmen,” only masquerades as a friendly place to have a snort.
--David A. Rosenberg
February 24, 2018