WARWICK, R.I. — In March 2020, just as British-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s “Hangmen” was about to open at Broadway’s Golden Theatre after circulating through London’s West End and New York’s off-Broadway district, every playhouse went pandemic-dark. When the Golden reopened in 2022, with “Hangmen” in full production, the theatre was darker still. This time it was “The Pillowman”-dark.
McDonagh aficionados cite “The Pillowman,” an earlier work, as the benchmark for his signature irresistible unpleasantness. The Olivier- and Tony Award-winning work features a writer of nightmarish fairytales living in a nameless totalitarian state in the near-future. He is interrogated — brutalized, really — by sadistic detectives because his stories bear a striking resemblance to the recent murders of several young children. All this happens as his mentally challenged brother is being bullied by detectives in the room next door.
“Hangmen,” currently on stage at the Gamm Theatre, is just as pitch-black (the play opens with a prisoner being hanged), just as disturbing (before the hanging, the man swears his innocence with the hysterical fervor that only an innocent man can muster, which is met with indifference), and just as funny.
Yup. Funny. Typically, macabre plays find it difficult to generate anything more than nervous laughter from an audience. Look no further than Stephen King’s “Misery” and Conor McPherson’s “St. Nicholas.” But McDonagh clears the path with crisp, razor-sharp dialogue layered with cleverly constructed and wonderfully inappropriate one-liners. Every line is delivered with glibness by intriguing, astoundingly flawed characters during a particularly bizarre time at a uniquely unusual place. He does the same thing in his award-winning screenplays for “Seven Psychopaths,” “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri” and, most recently, “The Banshees of Inisherin.”
Like those films, top-tier talent is required to make McDonagh’s complex “Hangmen” work. The Gamm Theatre has no shortage of talent on both sides of the proscenium arch, with Tony Estrella leading the way. His superb direction keeps this troupe of skilled performers with well-honed dramatic and comedic sensibilities from ever tipping their hand, resulting in a production that surprises and delights, while causing the occasional psychological rope burn from all the on-stage friction.
In “Hangmen,” it’s 1965 and death by hanging has been recently abolished as an option for capital punishment in the United Kingdom. But not before Harry Wade (Steve Kidd) — a short-tempered man in love with his own voice and the second-best hangman in the country after Albert Pierrepoint (Jim O’Brien) — executed James Hennessey (David Ensor), the opening scene victim who was convicted of killing a young woman amidst scant evidence.
Harry now runs a shabby pub in a small, working-class town in northern England, where he and his beleaguered wife, Alice (Karen Carpenter), and shy, mopey 15-year-old daughter, Shirley (Abilgail Milnor Sweetser), live upstairs. A motley group of regulars (John Cormier, Jack Clarke, and Bruce Kaye) — endearing simpletons all and the source of witty running gags that keep on gagging — engage in meaningless banter and attempt to drink away their respective brand of misery. Joining them of late is a demoralized Inspector Fry (Steven Liebhauser). But on this day, the anniversary of the Hennessey hanging, the barflies cheerfully discuss capital punishment with Harry, and are eager to get his take on it. So too is a young reporter (David Ensor), who is also in attendance.
Enter a grinning, menacing stranger with mysterious motives named Mooney (John Hardin). The one thing that is clear about the smooth-talking, hard-edged, and deliberately self-contradictory Mooney is that he is intent on making trouble, the first tell of which is his putting the moves on Harry’s daughter and intimidating Harry’s wife. Mooney’s abrupt departure from the bar coincides with Shirley’s disappearance.
Compounding Harry and Alice’s fears about the fate of their daughter is a visit from Syd (Gabriel Graet), a walking inferiority complex who served as Harry’s assistant during his hangman days. Syd raises new concerns about the innocence of the man they hanged years ago, which raises questions about whether Mooney is the actual killer who has now come back to gloat at and punish his would-be assassin.
There is no question that Gamm Theatre’s creatives know their way around a McDonagh play, having staged “The Lonesome West” in 2005, “The Pillowman” in 2008, “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” in 2013, and “A Skull in Connemara” in 2016. Everything about this production of “Hangmen” is necessarily realistic.
Scenic designer Jessica Hill Kidd constructs a convincingly mediocre pub to house these troubled characters, accentuated by James Horban’s dramatic lighting and sound designer Hunter Spoede’s perfectly timed thunderclaps during a mood-setting rainstorm. Spoede also provides a melodic soundscape before the show begins, and upbeat music between scenes that wickedly fly in the face of all that is transpiring on stage. Katie Hand’s costuming is true to the period and perfectly captures the nature of each of the characters. Mooney’s stylish, all-black attire upon his first entrance is brilliant. As is Harry’s prissy bowtie. The accents, courtesy of dialect coach Candice Brown, are spot-on.
This production and these performers make it easy to embrace the darkness and enjoy the laughs.
Play by Martin McDonagh. Directed by Tony Estrella. At the Gamm Theatre, 1245 Jefferson Blvd., Warwick. Through Nov. 26. Tickets $55-$65, including fees. 401-723-4266, gammtheatre.org.
Bob Abelman is an award-winning theater critic who formerly wrote for the Austin Chronicle. Connect with him on Facebook.