Few things delight me more than hearing theater people fight. I don’t mean complain or bicker or otherwise join the chorus of aggrieved superfans in the chat rooms—I mean have an actual give-and-take about plays. Last year, John Patrick Shanley and Martin McDonagh sparked just such a brawl. Was Doubt, the former’s parable about pedophilia and belief, superior to The Pillowman, the latter’s dark drama about the power of stories? The argument raged all summer, despite the fact that the Shanley fans and I were totally right, the McDonagh people sadly deluded.
Now, a few quick months later, both playwrights are back, and new arguments are sure to follow. In The Lieutenant of Inishmore, the young McDonagh has given the world something it didn’t know it was missing: a terrorism comedy. He tells the story of Mad Padraic, an Irish patriot so unhinged the IRA wouldn’t take him (“And he never forgave them for it,” says his father, ominously). When not attempting to bomb restaurants or torture drug dealers, Padraic focuses his affection on Wee Thomas, his black cat and only friend. Except that at the start of the play, Wee Thomas is found dead. And Padraic is on his way home.
For a dark comedy—a very, very dark comedy—that is an inspired premise, and McDonagh exploits its every hilarious variation. Where The Pillowman felt hollow, a series of bravura effects that lacked the weight the playwright seemed to desire, this play neither overreaches nor lets its chances slip by; every scene adds to the raucous, bloody fun. When a group of rival militants turns up, McDonagh gleefully lampoons demagogues of every stripe. “You want to get your priorities right, boy,” barks the leader to a squeamish, pet-friendly underling. “Is it happy cats or is it an Ireland free we’re after?”
McDonagh helps himself by turning the rich melodies of Irish language into something profoundly silly, from its profanity—everything’s “feckin’ ” this and “fecker” that—to its rhythm: Talk like Yoda they do. Crucially, director Wilson Milam and his marvelous cast play every line with straightforward seriousness. No matter how bizarre or gory the action becomes, their deadpan, brutalized style yields horrified laughs. The squeamish, the pet lovers, and the extremely high-minded will object to the blood and moral void. But for all its reprehensible violence, McDonagh’s story is actually a kind of wish fulfillment: The terrorists in his play kill mainly other terrorists. It may be the most civilized comedy of our time.
Uptown, meanwhile, Shanley makes a more decorous return to the stage. In Defiance, a Marine captain learns that his commanding officer has been accused of a gross act of misconduct, and must decide how to make things right. Like Doubt, the play is set in the past (1971), and, since the captain is black, race once again plays a role.
In fact, all sorts of things play a role. The captain, the colonel, and his wife will also explore the nature of historical progress, the justice of racial preferences, the bravery of draft dodging—and that’s before the chaplain turns up, with a whole new host of metaphysical puzzlers. “Responsibility trumps loyalty!” somebody yells, not the only point at which the show resembles an ethics seminar conducted at high volume. For while there is a great deal of thought in Shanley’s play, there is very little action. It’s telling that the one first-rate scene in the play, in which a victimized grunt (the excellent Jeremy Strong) confronts the captain (Chris Chalk), is the least philosophical of the night. Alas, that scene arrives around the hour mark of a 90-minute show.
It feels as though for Defiance to work, it needs to be half as short or twice as long. In the chaplain (Chris Bauer), a preacher from Alabama with a dash of Boss Hogg theatrics, Shanley has found an inspired creation. But what impels him to force the captain’s final collision with his boss? Racism? Personal pique? A peculiar evangelism? And what befalls the captain in the wake of that collision? Only on its final line, one revealing the terrible consequences of the protagonist’s actions, did Doubt become a great play. Here, Shanley lays a lot of track for what turns out to be a short trip.
This year’s installment of Shanley versus McDonagh may be no more of a contest than last year’s, but we should all want this to become an annual rite of spring. What could be better than a yearly appointment to see two dramatists write provocative plays and mix it up afterward? Alas, our fun may already be over. In The New Yorker last week, McDonagh declared that he’s done writing plays for a while. What are my friends and I supposed to argue about now? Shanley versus Tarzan? TV?