“If they’ve got to go, they’ve got to go by the quickest, the most dignified, and the least painful way of going as possible,” says Harry (David Threlfall), the former hangman determined to make the horrificness of capital punishment sound honorable.
Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy Hangmen, directed by Matthew Dunster at Broadway’s Golden Theatre, tries to do too many things. The play, which first premiered in London in 2015 ahead of a sold-out Off-Broadway run in 2018, attempts to battle with, and justify, the abolition of death by hanging in 1965 England with hoots, cackles, and pints of beer. Lots of it. Consequently, the convicted criminal hanged moments after the play begins becomes the laughingstock of 45th Street. (The grammatical difference between "hung" and "hanged" is also a frequent source of comedy.)
It’s hard to grapple with a noose being used as a foolish comedic prop. A rope used for centuries to dehumanize and murder Black bodies and executing (many innocent) convicts doesn’t sit well when repurposed as humor. Far too many Black people have been unjustly convicted of crimes they didn’t commit, and the sight of a noose alone comes with the remembrance of horrific acts of hate and violence. Hangmen’s opening scene can be quite triggering. The prisoner pleading his innocence moments before being hung as a visual to shape this story doesn’t help this argument. Why tell this kind of story now in America, when just last month, President Joe Biden signed long delayed legislation designating lynching a federal hate crime?
After Harry performs his final duties as a state-sanctioned murderer, the audience’s eyes descend on a pub he owns post-retirement, two years later. Now the man in charge, with a huge ego and wearing a full suit with vest and bow tie, Harry spends his time pouring fancy beers and detailing his proud execution of 233 prisoners to anyone who will listen.
A young reporter visits the pub asking to speak with Harry about his former position as hangman, while Mooney (a haunting Alfie Allen) is introduced as a strange young man from the beginning. He appears to be simply eavesdropping as he drinks his ale. But we really get to see how creepy Mooney is when he is left alone with Harry’s shy 15-year-old daughter (superbly played by Gaby French). In a single scene that’s dark and bothering, these two young people connect and interact effortlessly.
Besides the unsettling visuals of actual nooses and acts of hanging during the play, scene transitions are led visually by Anna Fleischle’s showstopping yet practical set design. Her outfitting of a show that’s arrived on Broadway at the wrong time is worthy of the ticket cost, but not worthy enough to sit through the play’s entirety and struggle through deep North England accents, snide remarks about monkeys in Africa, and social content that doesn’t deserve a giggle. The audience here are the ones to watch. They laughed and gasped, but in 2022, with sensitivities so high, Hangmen needs to be hung out to dry.
Photo credit: Alfie Allen and David Threlfall in Hangmen. (Photo by Joan Marcus)