PLEASE NOTE: This is a review of the 2018 Off-Broadway premiere of Hangmen at Atlantic Theater Company.
Bet that title makes you wonder what the play is about, right? Well Martin McDonagh's Hangmen is about a lot more than hangmen - but not by much. Is it also about being careful of the irreversible quality of your actions - let's say hanging someone, for instance - because those actions may be the very ones that some snivelling back years later to take a piece out of your behind.
1963 in Somewhere, England and the execution of a gent named Hennessy (Gilles Geary) is about to take place. The hangman on duty and known as the #2 after Albert Pierrepont (Maxwell Caulfield) is Harry Wade (Mark Addy) - a barrel chested, loud, and self-referential man who cares little for his "clients" more for his reputation. Get the job done. Get it done with no fuss. Get on to the next one.
And so on and so forth.
This particular case stumbles upon a couple of flies in the ointment as Hennessy goes every way BUT quietly, declaring his innocence and putting a curse on the Hangmen and his staff.
Pay attention to THAT.
Two years later (after one of the best set changes on the planet, thank you Anna Fleischle) England has abolished capital punishment. Seems the permanence of the outcome troubled the populace. Ergo, Harry has been reduced to standing behind the bar at his own pub where is wife Alice (the seamless Sally Rogers) is the real publican. You know, the one who does all the work. On the night in question the regulars Charlie (Billy Carter), Bill (Richard Hollis), Arthur (John Horton) are all on deck with a couple of additions. A newspaper reporter (remember it is 1965 when there were still such people pounding the local pavements) Clegg (Owen Campbell) has come to see what the Hangman thinks about the abolition. Seems as though the UK has gone and abolished capital punishment which, in the neck of the woods, put the fellas with the nooses out of business. Harry plays the "no comment" card until it suits him otherwise and he gives a private interview to the reporter.
The final addition in to the mix is the character of Peter Mooney (Johnny Flynn) who slithers in with all the nonchalance of a cobra. Mooney is an eavesdropper and a conjurer.
He listens to the gossip as it flows back and forth and over itself. So when he is left (predictably) alone with Shirley, he is ready to wrap himself around her. He bobs and weaves, and Shirley holds her own, until she doesn't.
The rest of the play unrolls like a runaway roll of paper towelling. Like every other McDonagh piece we are served up a goodly portion of violence with the threat and the possibility of more hanging just around the corner of the stage. This is a soggy, bleak part of the world, and it doesn't take much to tip it off its axis. There is cryptic humor, braggadocio, and the kind of bi-polar mood explosions that leave your stomach churning.
Also like much of McDonagh's other writing, this one leads you exactly where he wants to take you, when your money would be better spent going in the opposite direction so that you are there waiting when that train pulls into the station. Which I did.
All of this made me think, "And?" That is one of the many things I love about love theatre. I can sit in a room full of people who love a show and think, "What am I missing?" In this case I was missing a story that I could believe, and characters who were more than two dimensional. The performances, it should be noted, were quite excellent so this lack of a larger sphere of dimension seems to have been an artistic choice. Perhaps this is supposed to be a rollicking farce - it is a hybrid between Hitchcock and Serling after all - in which case the Marx brothers, or someone from the cast of The Play That Goes Wrong would have been welcome. So perhaps I am missing the intention of the entire shebang. It is uncomfortable to sit in a theatre and hear people laugh at abuse in whatever form it takes. And laugh they do. And stand and cheer they did as well.
Like The Lieutenant of Inishmore, the production may move to Broadway. It has that vibe. For those of you who liked that production, just know that there is hardly a spot of blood to be had in Hangmen. There is, however, a guaranteed body count.
This show sent me back home to watch McDonagh's Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri again. Found a story and characters I could sink my teeth into. You should pardon the expression.
(Photo by Ahron R. Foster)
What the popular press says...
"Mooney, it must be said, has a lot in common with the artful playwright who created him. That would be Martin McDonagh, whose criminally enjoyable Hangmen, a juicy tale of capital punishment and other forms of retribution, opened on Monday night. And aren’t we happy that Mr. McDonagh, who of late has mostly been otherwise engaged with movies (including the serious Oscar contender "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"), has reclaimed his mantle as the great deceiver of contemporary theater?"
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"Martin McDonagh is famous for writing stories gorged with gallows humor and violence. So he’s in comfort zone with his thoroughly entertaining but not completely airtight Hangmen."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"McDonagh twists his plot into a misanthropic noose that is only strong enough, in the end, to leave the play dangling, without a lethal snap. But yes, it does seem cool."
Adam Feldman for Time Out New York
"A delectably dark comedy about injustice, revenge and man's instinct for violence, state-sanctioned or otherwise."
David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter
"The morbid wit of playwright McDonagh (also writer-director of “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri”) remains corrosively funny on stage."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...