Give Theatre Exile a hand for this dark comedy

Pearce Bunting (left), Reuben Mitchell, and Amanda Schoonover in Martin McDonagh's "A Behanding in Spokane."
Pearce Bunting (left), Reuben Mitchell, and Amanda Schoonover in Martin McDonagh's "A Behanding in Spokane."
Posted: April 27, 2012

Theatre Exile's dazzling production of A Behanding in Spokane is both hilarious and creepy - that signature Martin McDonagh combo. An evenly excellent cast, directed by Joe Canuso, convinced me that a play I thought was merely a star turn (Christopher Walken being that star when I saw it on Broadway in 2010) is stand-alone terrific.

Carmichael (Pearce Bunting) sits grimly on the edge of a bed in a seedy hotel room somewhere in small-town America, proving, in case we needed telling, that there are peculiar people everywhere. It may be that in McDonagh's world, there is no other kind.

We hear muffled humming and moaning and banging coming from the closet. This goes on for quite a while (Canuso is fearless about long wordless stretches) until finally Carmichael opens the closet door, shoots whoever's in there, and says, "I did say, didn't I?" And we're off.

We will eventually hear about Carmichael's 27-year-long quest for the hand he lost in some horror show when he was a kid, and we'll meet two young scammers, Toby (Reuben Mitchell) and Marilyn (Amanda Schoonover), who sold him a severed hand. Completing the group is the hotel's receptionist Mervyn (Matt Pfeiffer), a person of astonishing weirdness whose death wish mingles with his need to rescue somebody or something.

Pfeiffer is brilliant in his offhanded (sorry), cheerful, unsettling meanness; Mitchell gives us a smart (but not so smart) street seller of weed, who manages to be lovable as well as ridiculous. Schoonover is adorable as his dopey blond girlfriend. And Bunting offers a profoundly weird Carmichael.

McDonagh, the sensational Irish playwright who has stormed the world's stages in the last decade (locally we've seen The Pillowman, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, A Skull in Connemara, The Cripple of Inishmaan) and has recently moved into film. If you loved In Bruges, note that his new movie, Seven Psychopaths, is to be released this year.

Behanding is his most recent play, and his first set in America. The playwright has shaped the weirdness to suit the country, with racism, make-a-quick-buck schemes, fantasies of school massacres, and a pervasive inability to register the danger of consequences. As always, the engine of a McDonagh play is wildly entertaining, gasp-inducing stupidity, and Theatre Exile's production is really smart about that stupidity.


Follow Toby Zinman on Twitter at #philastage. Read her reviews at www.philly.com/phillystage.

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