Saturday, April 24, 2010

Go back to Galway

While we're catching up: I reviewed Martin McDonagh's new play, A Behanding in Spokane, for Commonweal last month. It took me this long to mention it here because (a) the review is subscribers-only online, and (b) the play was a big fat disappointment. Most of what I wrote is an introduction to McDonagh, whose Irish plays I love and admire. (Did you know online-only subscriptions to Commonweal are just $29?) Here's a sample of what I had to say about Behanding:

McDonagh’s best plays are theatrical games, in which he manipulates the audience into laughing harder as his stories grow uglier and darker. But to judge from the amusing but unsatisfying A Behanding in Spokane, McDonagh has lost interest in the game he invented. The title suggests another of his grotesquely lyrical tall tales, but the “behanding” it alludes to is a past event. The play takes place in a forlorn hotel in an unspecified city, where a man named Carmichael (a particularly cadaverous Christopher Walken) is searching for the hand he lost as a child. McDonagh’s plotting is uncharacteristically listless. We never learn much about what Carmichael has been up to in the intervening decades; there are hints of a violent past, and a suggestion that the low-rent con we’re watching is just one in a long string of attempted scams. But few of the tantalizing details materialize as plot twists, or even as character traits.

Like McDonagh’s dark thriller The Pillowman, Behanding seems at times to be commenting on the author’s vocation—on the process and purpose of telling stories. One character even stops the action to comment on its strangeness and ask the audience, “Where’s a story like that gonna go?” But the playwright is less interested than any of his characters in following this story to its conclusion. The play runs out of momentum well before the end, and the loose ends of the plot are left dangling. It’s a new kind of nihilism for McDonagh—not simply moral, but stylistic too.
Aside from the predictably perverse Terry Teachout (who, I am all but convinced, intentionally raves about things everyone else hates, and vice versa), most critics were similarly down on McDonagh's latest. The New Yorker's review was, even for Hilton Als, completely insane, but he got one thing right: how bad Christopher Walken is onstage. Ben Brantley, of course, spent three-quarters of his review just raving about Walken, and while I am exercising restraint (in not taking the Hilton-Als-is-an-embarrassment bait), I will also refrain from using the word that best describes Brantley's approach to reviewing shows with movie stars in them. I think you know what it is. Still, I have to register my dissatisfaction with his take on Walken-as-stage-actor:
His use of his signature arsenal of stylistic oddities has seldom been more enthralling. ...The rest of the erratically enjoyable Behanding... never matches the strange genius of its star.
Of course, if you hire Walken, you know what you're getting. It's not so much that the script fails to match his "genius"; it's more accurate, I think, to say that the casting was designed to hide the script's mediocrity under the "stylistic oddities" of its star.

I do think that most of what Brantley wrote about the play itself is dead on, and quite insightful. (Although it's odd that he says Sam Rockwell "has the play's best-written monologue," since it's sort of the only monologue, and although in isolation it might be a good piece of writing, in performance it's a surprisingly clunky move for McDonagh.) But on Walken I think he's dead wrong.
Pauses pop up when you least expect them, entirely shifting the weight of the words around them. Inflections rise upward when normally they would curve down. A single clause can slalom from ennui to anger. These idiosyncrasies of delivery surprise you into close attention and, ultimately, into feeling you can trace the thoughts of the man speaking.
I never felt that the man speaking -- the character of Carmichael -- existed at all. I never lost sight of the fact that I was watching the actor Christopher Walken; at best I felt I was tracing the thoughts of an actor going through the motions of his usual shtick, funny voices and all. Those unexpected pauses were exactly what I expected. They "surprise" me into paying more attention to the actor than the script or the character or the play.

This is the kind of unfettered enthusiasm Brantley usually reserves for leading ladies. He knows, of course, that not everyone thinks Christopher Walken's deer-in-headlights stammer is a display of brilliance. But that's down to our lack of perceptiveness, you see: "[S]ome people have become allergic to his familiar panoply of tics and quirks." Speaking for myself, it's not an allergy; it's a fervent desire for him to be less predictably unpredictable.

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