Friday, February 26, 2010

A Behanding in Spokane

No snow, sleet or icy rain was going to prevent me from seeing the venerable Christopher Walken in a new play by Martin McDonagh (on whom I confess I have a huge crush). It was much fun.
A Behanding in Spokane is the first of McDonagh's plays that takes place in the United States. A seedy motel room represents the sorry state of affairs of our fair Republic. Walken plays Mr. Carmichael, a man who was robbed of his hand when he was a child, and has spent the last 47 years looking for it. 
The play is a bracing combo of Beckettian absurdity, lots of Mametesque profanity and McDonagh's intriguing mix of humor and violence, very similar to his excellent The Lieutenant of Inishmore. He goes to town making fun of some of our most cherished indigenous passions, like racism, political correctness, revenge fantasies and our unquenchable thirst for violence. With four characters in a hotel room he creates a pretty accurate snapshot of our quintessentially American surrealism.
America didn't use to be a surrealist country, but now it is actually going towards the certifiably insane. Unfortunately, our brand of surrealism is not of the poetic variety (like Mexico's); it's more of the frighteningly ridiculous (Sarah Palin, the healthcare fiasco, teabaggers, reality shows, the TSA, banks, you name it).  Outsiders like McDonagh can see this insanity perhaps a little more clearly than us who are mired in it. And he lets it rip, but in a subtle way, never lecturing or being topical or political. I think he is saying it is the violence and our almost innocent attachment to selfishness that are making us crazy. 
McDonagh uses the n-word, the c-word, the f-word and all its permutations with hilarious abandon. I think these words somehow have ceased to be shocking and he knows it. But there are very clever shocks in two amazing monologues. One is by Mervyn, (Sam Rockwell, terrific) free associating on his burning desire to be a hero, in a totally wrong way. He is completely inured to violence, but he has a sensitive ego.
The other one is a phone conversation between Carmichael and his mother which is all at once appalling, tender, absurd, hilarious, full of venom, rage and love. 

The way Walken speaks, it's like listening to Jazz. He riffs, he scats, he swings and I adore the way he sounds, with his creamy Noo Yawk accent. His unique rhythms are totally artificial and at the same time, naturally colloquial. It may be shtick, but it works beautifully. And he has gotten even better at putting delicious emphases in surprising places with impeccable timing. We were at the back of the orchestra and we understood every word he said, but sometimes he spoke a little too softly (on purpose, I'm sure).
Sam Rockwell is excellent as Mervyn, the nosy, weirdo receptionist. He seems very much at home on the stage, just like he is on film, but here he seems more disciplined, less quirky. Anthony Mackie is also very funny as Toby, a young pot dealer who is rather sensitive and prone to fits of tears. The one disappointment is Zoe Kazan, as Marilyn, Toby's girlfriend and dealer sidekick with a penchant for political correctness. Her voice is tinny and grating and this distracts from her performance. I didn't get a clear sense of character from her. I have been far more impressed with her in film than when I've seen her onstage.
Still, a lot of fun it was. I'm very happy I saw it.

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