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Novelty Act

Martin McDonagh’s thinnest play gets a creepy boost from Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell.

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In A Behanding in Spokane, Martin McDonagh’s latest and lightest abattoir food fight, Christopher Walken is very much himself—which is to say, he’s reliably Walkenesque, a walking Walken impression far superior to the kind your stupid friends do at parties. Playing a vengeful psycho in search of his severed left hand (did I really need to tell you Walken plays a vengeful psycho?), he remains that familiar symphony of jigs and twitches we’ve come to love, burning holes in the fourth wall with anthracite eyes that seem terrifyingly lidless, until he winks. And wink he does, more than once, at his oft-bewildered co-stars—Anthony Mackie and Zoe Kazan as two young hustlers who disastrously attempt to sell him another man’s hand, and Sam Rockwell as Mervyn, the distractible sad-sack hotel clerk who admires him—and, by extension, at us. Watching Walken/Carmichael savor his own cigarette smoke, and his own travel-worn oddness, is like walking in on something autoerotic, then staying to watch. Which we can’t help doing, even if we sense a certain flogging futility in the proceedings. Walken is a little too perfectly matched with McDonagh (The Pillowman, The Lieutenant of Inishmore). They’re two tic-ish synthesists for whom quirk can quickly become an end in itself.

Not that that’s an altogether bad thing. Indeed, it makes Behanding just as consuming as a B movie on late-night cable, right up to the moment its underbelly milieu maxes out its welcome, and we become aware that we’re simply passing through a mist of massless, weightless, consequence-free pop art. Even after that point, there’s plenty of punchy fun to be had: McDonagh’s language is, as always, swingy and insouciant and sui generis. (“I can see the shadows of your feet, man,” Mervyn says, through a hotel-room door. “You can see the shadows of my feet?” Carmichael answers. Mervyn: “So I know you’re there.” “Well,” rebuts Carmichael, “I didn’t say I wasn’t here.”) But, from the stilted lilt of its title on down, Behanding is clearly reaching. It’s more of a mood than a Work, less a Play than mere play: pure synthesis in search of nonexistent authenticity. That’s a fool’s quest we’ve seen, in finer fettle, in The Pillowman and The Lieutenant of Inishmore. McDonagh himself seems to sense the play’s thinness, and the show disowns itself, over and over. It’s a brazen act of confabulated self-amputation that might feel a little more brazen if it were actually, you know, about something, anything, other than itself.

Various investigations of mythic Americanness are cursorily auditioned and dismissed: Race, for example, threatens to intrude, as Carmichael (a proudly self-identified “racist”) berates Tobey (Mackie), raining down “nigger” this and “nigger” that with abandon. Tarantino—whom McDonagh clearly reveres on par with Pinter and Synge—had the guts to deploy that word neutrally, without annotation or explication, back when it was arguably more explosive than it is today. But McDonagh, still a tourist here in the States, wants to gut it and pin it. For him, it’s a conjure-word. So he has blondely, brainlessly p.c. Marilyn (Kazan) call out the “offensiveness,” even when she’s under threat of annihilation, at gunpoint. It’s an amusing game (Marilyn’s the principled idiot, Tobey is pure wily survival instinct), but even this familiar dialectic dissolves within a scene or two, as McDonagh starts coloring far outside his own lines. He doesn’t seem terribly interested in these characters, and his apathy infects the performances: Kazan is entirely at sea with Marilyn, unable to get her footing in anything emotionally or intellectually or even linguistically consistent; McDonagh’s invented American argot isn’t as stable as its Irish counterpart, and it dies in Kazan’s mouth. Meanwhile, Mackie, the apoplectic realist, has the most exhausting and least rewarding role, on a stage full of deadly morons.

Only Rockwell, one of the most underrated actors around, really finds solid purchase in his character. He’s the closest thing this story has to a storyteller—more of a story-seeker, really, a Travis Bickle type congenitally estranged from humanity, waiting desperately for something exciting to happen, an opportunity to be welcomed back into mankind a hero. “What if a guy checks in and he’s only got one hand and there’s some pretty girl with him and there’s some black guy with her, and ten minutes later the shooting starts?” Mervyn asks Carmichael. “Where’s a story like that gonna go, I wonder?” “I guess we’ll find out,” Carmichael answers, “as soon as you leave.” The look on the banished Rockwell’s face is hilarious, pitiful, and promising. Perhaps McDonagh should’ve listened to Carmichael’s advice and left the room to his characters. Instead, he bears down hard, breaks his pencil against the page, and tries to tell us that’s the point. Maybe it is. Or maybe McDonagh’s just savoring his own smoke.


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