(l to r) Mark Addy and Johnny Flynn in ‘Hangmen.’ (Photo: Ahron R. Foster)
By Samuel L. Leiter
London-born-and-raised (but referred to as Anglo-Irish) playwright Martin McDonagh (Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri; The Pillowman), once again proves that, when it comes to sucking you into the vortex of a darkly funny, violence-tinted, dramatic world, nobody does it with quite the same reliably mesmerizing results.
The latest example is his black comedy Hangmen. Originally staged in 2015 at London’s Royal Court Theatre, it became a West End hit and has now transferred to Off-Broadway’s Atlantic Theater Company. Five of its dozen British actors are present: Mark Addy (who replaced the original’s David Morrissey), Johnny Flynn, Gaby French, Sally Rogers, and Reece Shearsmith.
The noose begins tightening from the second the lights rise on the grim, brick walls of an English prison’s execution chamber, sometime in 1963. Within minutes, we witness a struggling prisoner, Hennessy (Gilles Geary), protesting his innocence, hanged (not “hung” as a misinformed character is instructed) with as much compassionless efficiency as you’d show when squashing a cockroach. Overseeing the execution, while ridiculing his subordinates, is the stout, self-important hangman, Harry Wade (Mark Addy).
Then, in one of designer Anna Fleischle’s scenic coups, the set transforms before our eyes to the expansive interior of a large pub (yes, another stage saloon), two years later, in Oldham, Lancashire. Harry, forced to retire in the wake of capital punishment’s recently having become abolished in the UK, owns the establishment with his unhappy wife, Alice (Sally Rogers).
Ruling his roost with stentorian authority, Harry bathes in the adulation of his four mindless, pint-guzzling regulars. They—behaving almost like a Greek chorus—bow in awe before the celebrity he’s accrued for the many deaths accomplished on his watch. Even Fry (David Lansbury), a police inspector, is cowed by Harry’s presence. Also here is a reporter named Clegg, pestering Harry for an interview about his former profession.
In the published interview, which is later discussed, the egomaniacal Harry brags about how many people he’s executed while criticizing the numbers put up by the even more prolific Albert Pierpont (Maxwell Caulfield), his rival for the title of England’s premier hangman. This only further burnishes Harry’s morbid reputation with his hanger-ons. Harry’s fatuity, however, will be put to the test when Pierpont himself eventually shows up. As they say, give a man enough rope…
Before he does, though, Mooney (Johnny Flynn), a young Londoner, coiffed and dressed in slim-tied, Carnaby Street attire, appears. He’s a chain-smoking time bomb packed with Pinter/Orton shrapnel: slick, garrulous, and—self-described as “menacing”—Mooney’s up to no good. In a long, creepily subdued scene, he befriends Harry and Alice’s shy, chubby, insecure, 15-year-old daughter, Shirley (French). At another point, having sought to rent a room from Alice, he unexpectedly explodes when she has the audacity to check his references.
The central plot device is the disappearance of Shirley, which may (or may not) be Mooney’s handiwork. It certainly looks like it is, what with the skullduggery being discussed in a café between Mooney and Syd (Shearsmith), Harry’s stuttering, disgruntled, vengeance-seeking, former associate. These things coalesce in a gruesome, wickedly funny, technically clever denouement highlighting McDonagh’s themes of crime, revenge, and punishment in a manner I’ll not describe. Let’s just say that thereby hangs a tale.
Hangmen has its feet in surface realism but, as devilishly well directed by Matthew Dunster, it’s up to its neck in theatricality. (I do wish, though, that Dunster’s staging didn’t rely so much on the barflies lining up horizontally across the stage.) Dunster manages to conduct his cast’s delivery of McDonagh’s pungently witty, thickly North Country-accented dialogue with such rhythmic precision and tonal variation that it practically becomes a vocal symphony. (Stephen Gabis’s dialect coaching of the American actors pays off big time.)
Fleischele’s scenic choices (and her period-perfect costumes) are aided significantly by the atmospheric lighting of Joshua Carr (lightning flashes included), and the expert sound score of Ian Dickinson for Autograph. But, with this sterling company, Hangmen would be riveting even if the stage was bare, the lights unchanging, and the actors in rehearsal clothes.
Flynn—whose stardom looks assured—is a chillingly coldblooded, charismatic Mooney, Addy is arrogantly puffed up as the self-satisfied Harry, Rogers is an ideal complement as the irritated, still attractive Alice (the pair may remind you of Ralph and Alice Kramden), French fully embodies teen angst as Shirley, Shearsmith is weaselly convincing as Syd, Caulfield is a defiantly proud Pierpont, and everyone else contributes to the excellence of the ensemble.
Hangmen doesn’t necessarily add anything to the ongoing capital punishment debate but there’s no question that it provides capital entertainment.
Atlantic Theater Company/Linda Gross Theater
336 W. 20th St., NYC
Through March 7
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. A voting member of the Drama Desk, he has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).