Martin McDonagh’s oeuvre, from The Pillowman on stage to In Bruges on film, typically blends gut-busting laughs with gruesome violence; that juxtaposition reached its apotheosis in Act II Scene ii of 2006’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore, when the curtain rose over a stage as blood-soaked as a disembodied heart, the characters miserably—and hilariously—chopping corpses into chunks. No such heaps of hemoglobin drench the stage in his slight but side-splitting latest, A Behanding in Spokane—there’s just a suitcase full of severed hands that spills open, carpeting the hotel-room setting’s floor in dissevered appendages. Yes, they will be lobbed between characters like mashed potatoes in a food fight. And, yes, it’s very funny. And, yes, there are tiny hands among them that once belonged to children. And, no, that’s not funny at all.
Christopher Walken stars as Carmichael, who has been searching for the hand he lost to hillbillies outside of Spokane 47 years ago, weaving through networks of corpse collectors across this “sad, decaying nation.” “Do you know what [it] feels like?” he asks, for laughs and strange pathos, “to be waved goodbye at by your own hand?” He directs the question at two young weed dealers, Toby (Anthony Mackie) and Marilyn (Zoe Kazan), who tried to scam a few hundred dollars out of Carmichael with a purloined aborigine hand but have wound up, instead, tied up, shot at, and finally chained to the radiators in the madman’s lodgings.
They spend most of that shackled time bickering like the leads of Reasons to be Pretty, or fighting with the “receptionist guy,” played by Sam Rockwell, who always seems to be grinning coolly, either because his character is blithely apathetic, even toward death, or because the actor, like the audience, can’t keep a straight face while Walken’s around, using his signature delivery—peculiar emphases and characteristic misenunciations—to great comic effect. (Hell, Walken gets the audience giggling just appearing on stage.) Mackie’s hyperagitated turn wrings quite a few laughs as well; his always-be-shouting technique proved a deafening chore in last summer’s The Bacchae, but works well here in teasing the yuks from McDonagh’s script.
This is the playwright’s first work set in America, and he packs it with easy signifiers, which complement the play’s broad characters and situations: there’s a rant about school shootings, and Carmichael is a casual racist and homophobe, prone to calling Toby a “nigger” and “fag.” This is a von Trierian “America,” a fantasy country of savagery and haters, where schemers have exploited the handicapped for nearly half a century. The swear-heavy, Seinfeldian digressions amid life and death crises that characterize the play—the arguments over hurt feelings against a backdrop of time bombs—come to serve a deeper purpose than comedy, suggesting a culture that doesn’t take violence seriously, that ignores the bloodletting all around it (literal, figurative, whatever) because of preoccupations with petty, personal pseudo-problems. In the midst of the action’s climax, Walken stops to have a phone conversation with his mother, a tour de force monologue; characters are shackled, guns are drawn, lives hang in the balance, and he’s going on about balloons and pornographic magazines. Is that classic McDonagh? Or classic America?