Theater Schmeater’s A Behanding in Spokane: The Stakes Are There…

Gordon Carpenter is Carmichael in Theater Schmeater's production of A BEHANDING IN SPOKANE. Image by Dave Hastings.
Gordon Carpenter is Carmichael in Theater Schmeater’s production of A BEHANDING IN SPOKANE. Image by Dave Hastings.

If there was a lesson to be learned from ACT’s regrettable 2011 production of Lieutenant of Inishmore it was simply that performing Martin McDonagh’s material isn’t as easy as it looks. A production has to accept the heightened stakes, for one thing. If the play asks the director to milk laughs out of having the protagonist torturing the hell out of somebody in the first scene, that is done by having the torture be so visceral that there is no choice but to laugh, squeamish audiences be damned. Play the comedy too broadly, and the violence in McDonagh’s plays becomes pointlessly gruesome; alternately, focus too much on the violence, and the humor that is supposed to make all of this seem human disappears.

As if all of that weren’t daunting enough, there is the dangerous element that the playwright’s characters are supposed to bring forth. McDonagh has a penchant in writing characters—there is usually one, though Inishmore was populated with nothing but these types—that are generally dangerous motherfuckers compared to the average civilized human being. They might be able to charm the pants off of you, but they are just as liable to cut your jugular on a whim. Think Lisa Viertel’s Ms. Blonde in Theater Schmeater’s Reservoir Dolls, or Titus Andronicus‘s Aron. These are people one should not take one’s eyes off of for an instant; they bear watching.

It’s a wonder McDonagh is produced at all, but seeing as he’s treated as the British Tracy Letts on this side of the water, his material is produced regularly. Given that, it was still surprising to find out that the Schmee was producing McDonagh’s recent A Behanding in Spokane, especially in contrast to the company’s programming over the last couple of seasons. Here is a fairly new play, featuring unsavory characters, crude language, violence, and not a single heartwarming moment to make it all go down smoothly—a nasty piece of populist work, in other words.

The production is a success, by and large, primarily because director Peggy Gannon does not undercut the stakes of the situation as presented. This might be a function of Gannon’s years as a sketch comedian, where “buy into the situation, no matter how ludicrous” is a primary tenet. As a consequence, Behanding‘s atmosphere is greatly aided by the no-winking-allowed approach, which further ameliorates any other problems that might exist in the evening.

As lights come up, we are introduced to Carmichael (Gordon Carpenter), a greatly disturbed man on a mission to find his missing hand. After many years, his hunt has led him back to Spokane, Carmichel’s hometown, where Toby (Corey Spruill) and Marilyn (Hannah Mootz) claim to have the hand in question and could sell it to him. Toby and Marilyn, a pair of small time grifters, think they have found an easy mark, only to find out that they are woefully over their heads. Enter Mervyn (Brandon Ryan), a generally bored hotel clerk who 1) might have an axe to grind with Toby, 2) may have a somewhat pathetic crush of Marilyn, and 3) is definitely overly curious about Carmichael. From this general setup, complications arise and continue arising in true McDonagh fashion.

The pace at which they arise is nicely handled, and Gannon regularly jolts the audience with unexpected gags and scares. Many of these come from the exchanges between Carmichael, Marilyn and Toby; the majority of the humor arrives courtesy of Mervyn, Behanding‘s clear comic relief, a role that Ryan delivers with a laconic, creepy and clingy charm.

A clipped pace and regular gags are no substitute for dramatic momentum, however, and things start to flag after a major resolution during the final third of the play. Part of this is due to the fact that Behanding, despite the usual care taken with turns of phrase and character details, is not one of McDonagh’s better outings. Structurally speaking, the play relies a bit too heavily on Carmichael’s—one of McDonagh’s trademarked fierce hooligans described above—dangerous nature. If he isn’t portrayed with the requisite amount of unstable unpredictability, the tension that is supposed to drive the latter portion of the play slowly dissipates. While Carpenter’s Carmichael is quite intense—indeed, enjoyably so—one is never afraid for the other characters’ lives while they are in his presence.

Thankfully, by the time this becomes noticeable, Gannon and her ensemble (Carpenter included) has generated enough good will to arrive at the amusingly strange conclusion to this somewhat deranged story. Combine these elements with the customarily strong production values, and, while not an apex, the end result is still a genuinely entertaining diversion.

Thursday through Saturday at 8:00p.m.; through February 23 // Theater Schmeater, 1500 Summit Avenue // $18 in advance, $23 at the door; tickets available through Brown Paper Tickets

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