- Johan Persson
In the second act of this bitterly funny and pervasively melancholic 1996 play, a local girl on the titular Irish island asks her little brother if he wants to play England vs. Ireland. He agrees, and she breaks three eggs over his head. Though it’s rarely as blatant, this is a play about the archipelago on which it’s set and the larger national psyche, really putting the ire in Ireland, a beautiful country mired in poverty and thus made undesirable. It seems like all there is to eat is peas. Its title character embodies a peoples: abused, hurt, reviled, better off dead, and born in violence, which he wears on the outside—an external manifestation of his and all his friends’ and family’s lives and shared history.
That he’s also rejected by Hollywood and returned to his gossipy and provincial homeland seems perhaps a personal touch from the playwright Martin McDonagh, though he has since achieved modest Hollywood success with, or at least received some respect for, In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths (and, before those, an Oscar for his short “Six Shooter”). This play is set during a different era for Hollywood, the 1930s, while Robert Flaherty is shooting his “fictional documentary” The Man of Aran within the island chain off Galway Bay, casting locals for their looks to re-create simple, premodern ways of life that were already out-of-fashion there by the time of filming.
Cripple Billy, played here by Daniel Radcliffe, longs to be a part of the filming, to use the role to escape from home to America. And he’s fine, getting a big Doc Holliday-like hacking scene in a roominghouse that should qualify him for a Tony nomination, but you could hardly call him the main character: he spends much of the play in the corner, his left leg rigidly extended, his arm bent at the elbow, or far away from the action. McDonagh’s play retains the hilarity that characterizes most of his work, but it replaces the usual ultraviolence with a lack of focus; if it’s witty, it’s also rambling, its nationalist message underplayed in this Broadway production directed by Michael Grandage (at the Cort Theatre through at least July 20). Sure, if people are buying tickets, it’s probably more to see Harry Potter than to get a lesson on the Irish temperament—but this production runs the risk of providing neither.
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