Just as Martin McDonagh’s “Seven Psychopaths’’ hits movie screens, Theatre on Fire and Charlestown Working Theater are offering another pungent slice of low life from the mind of McDonagh: “A Behanding in Spokane.’’
An alternate title for this darkly comic study in monomania, directed by Darren Evans, could be “One Psychopath, One Borderline Case, and Two Nervous Grifters Who Are in Waaaay Over Their Heads.’’
That combination of ingredients enables the play to bounce engrossingly along for a while, but then it starts spinning its wheels.
The gallows humor of “Behanding,’’ which premiered in 2010 on Broadway in a production starring Christopher Walken, will be familiar to Bostonians who saw McDonagh’s “The Cripple of Inishmaan’’ last year at ArtsEmerson. But whereas “Cripple’’ delivers a fully realized world in spare, elliptical strokes, “Behanding’’ ultimately feels like not much more than a genre exercise by McDonagh, a prolific playwright-screenwriter-director.
Evans, the artistic director of Theatre on Fire, gets McDonagh’s mordant sensibility. He wrings the most out of this tonally tricky game of verbal roughhouse, whose lead character is racist, homophobic, and generally unfit for human companionship. Evans builds “Behanding’’ into a showcase for his quartet of fine performers, especially the imposing, gravel-voiced Jeff Gill.
Gill was impressive last year as Red Auerbach in a solo show titled “The Auerbach Dynasty,’’ and as God in Ethan Coen’s “Almost an Evening’’ in 2010. (To Celtics fans of a certain generation, those roles amount to pretty much the same thing.) Gill delivers another memorable portrayal in “Behanding,’’ playing a menacing fellow named Carmichael who is on a most unusual mission.
Decades before the action of the play, Carmichael’s left hand was separated from his body in spectacularly gruesome fashion. With an intense single-mindedness of purpose that makes Inspector Javert’s pursuit of Jean Valjean seem like so much aimless shilly-shallying, he has spent the intervening years hunting for that missing hand. Carmichael made sure that those responsible for its loss met grisly fates, but still, no hand.
Now, Carmichael has landed in a seedy hotel room, designed by Luke J. Sutherland, that features a low-slung bed above which hangs a large wheel. A mysterious brown suitcase is on the other side of the room, and a not-mysterious-at-all gun is tucked into Carmichael’s waistband. There’s a heaviness to his movements, but his eyes are fevered beneath his unruly gray hair. Pieces of white tape cover tattoos near the knuckles of his right hand.
Matters begin to spiral out of control as Carmichael confronts Toby (Tory Bullock) and Marilyn (Becca A. Lewis), a pair of young pot dealers who have presented him with a hand that they say is his. Toby is African-American, and Carmichael has a nasty habit of spewing racial epithets. He’s also given to antigay slurs. Both these ugly character traits feel gratuitous on McDonagh’s part, a straining for shock effects in a play not lacking for them. (Remember that suitcase.)
Marilyn and Toby are soon chained to a radiator while a candle stuffed in a can of gasoline burns steadily down. If that flame isn’t extinguished: kaboom. This prospect does not seem to trouble an oddball desk clerk named Mervyn, played by Greg Maraio, who pops in and out of the room, bizarrely trying to make time with Marilyn.
Maraio, attired in sneakers, a red vest, and a name tag (the note-perfect costumes are by Maureen Festa), has fun with this scene-stealing role. His long-haired Mervyn is a recognizable Internet-era type, the passive-aggressive nerd who lives inside his own addled head and whose most meaningful relationship was with a gibbon at the zoo.
Bullock deftly navigates the challenges presented by the character of Toby, who veers from quick-thinking schemer to blubbering mess in the blink of an eye. Toby aspires to be the voice of reason, not that it’s a hotly contested title in that particular hotel room. As the flaky Marilyn, Lewis is a treat to watch, with her wonderfully mobile features and pinpoint comic timing.
But your eyes keep returning to Gill’s wrathful Carmichael, alternately vile and pitiable but always seeming like a solitary figure who’s missing a lot more than a hand.
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.