New York City Theater
"The Cripple of Inishmaan"
Everybody calls him “Cripple Billy,” although he prefers just plain Billy. Spending his life looking at cows or reading, yearning to be loved, Billy is the hero of sorts in the revival of Martin McDonagh’s very funny, very sad “The Cripple of Inishmaan.” It’s a beautifully realized production that not only boosts this Broadway season but demonstrates what stupendous ensemble work is all about, a particular gift that our British cousins possess.
Yes, there’s a star with his name above the title. That would be Daniel Radcliffe, who must by now get weary of always having his name appended to his role as Harry Potter. That he’s a superlative, versatile actor in his own right is proved by many film roles and two prior Broadway appearances, as the troubled young man in “Equus” and the scheming office worker in the musical “How to Succeed.”
In “Cripple,” he tops everything. His Billy is sad-eyed without being maudlin, amusing without being sarcastic, loving and needy without being sentimental. His deformities happened at birth, leaving him with a crooked arm, a leg he cannot bend and a gait that twists his body. Adopted by his two aunts after his parents mysteriously drowned (the explanation for which, though long in coming, is both pitiful and horrible), Billy is denied success. There’s a girl he’d like to walk with, a brittle girl with a sharp tongue. And there’s a career he’d like to have, as a movie star.
Pursuing the latter, he begins by hoping to be cast in “Man of Aran,” the famous documentary being filmed on the nearby island of Inishmore. His quest ends months later in a seedy California hotel room. Missing him are his aunts who run a general store. Kate, who talks to stones, is almost balmy with worry, while Eileen covers her concern with a tart tongue and a penchant for sweets.
It’s an inbred community where its mercurial characters get news from Johnnypateenmike, the local gossip, a gruff soul trying to kill off his aged Mammy by plying her with liquor, to the horror of the local doctor. Helen is the young and pretty virago Billy desires, with a brother, Bartley, whom she torments. Finally, there’s the seething Babbybobby who may burst out violently at any time.
As directed by Michael Grandage with an uncompromising sense of place, this is an Irish play as moving and hilarious as any by Friel or O’Casey. The humor is black (“It’ll all end in tears, death or worse”), the stories are wonderfully exaggerated (someone’s goose bit the tail of someone else’s cat, leading to a feud), the outside world is remote (who’s that German fella with the funny mustache?).
It’s the jokes, the gossip, the drink, the insults that keep everyone alive. “Ireland mustn’t be such a bad place,” they keep saying. Correct that: this particular patch of Ireland beats just about everywhere for the pleasure it will give audiences. By the end, you want to embrace them all.
--David A. Rosenberg
April 22, 2014