Thursday, January 29, 2015





By Toby Zinman

For the Inquirer

Theatre Exile’s dazzling production of A Behanding in Spokane is both hilarious and creepy—that signature Martin McDonagh combo.  An evenly excellent cast, directed by Joe Canuso, convinced me that a play I thought was merely a star turn (Christopher Walken being that star when I saw it on Broadway), is stand-alone terrific.

Carmichael (Pearce Bunting) sits grimly on the edge of a bed in a seedy hotel room somewhere in small-town America, proving, in case we needed telling, that there are peculiar people everywhere. It may be that in McDonagh’s world, there are no other kind.

We hear muffled humming and moaning and banging coming from the closet. This goes on quite a while (Canuso is fearless about long wordless stretches) until finally Carmichael opens the closet door, shoots whoever’s in there, and says, “I did say, didn’t I?” And we’re off.

We will eventually hear about Carmichael’s twenty-seven year long quest for the hand he lost in some horrorshow when he was a kid, and we’ll meet  two young scammers, Toby (Reuben Mitchell) and Marilyn (Amanda Schoonover), who sold him a severed hand.  Completing the group is the hotel’s receptionist Mervyn (Matt Pfeiffer), a person of astonishing weirdness whose death wish mingles with his need to rescue somebody or something.

Pfeiffer is brilliant in his offhanded (sorry), cheerful, unsettling meanness; Mitchell gives us a smart (but not so smart) street-seller of weed, who manages to be lovable as well as ridiculous.  Schoonover is adorable as his dopey blonde girlfriend. And Bunting gives us a profoundly weird Carmichael.

McDonagh, the sensational Irish playwright who has stormed the world’s stages  in the past decade (locally we’ve seen The Pillowman, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Cripple of Inishmaan) and has recently moved into film. If you loved In Bruges, his new movie, Seven Psychopaths, is due to be released this year. 

Behanding is  his most recent play, set for the first time in America. And the playwright has shaped the weirdness to suit the country: racism, make-a-quick-buck, fantasies of school massacres,  and a pervasive inability to register the danger of consequences. As always, the engine of a McDonagh play is wildly entertaining, gasp-inducing stupidity, and Theatre Exile’s production is really smart about that stupidity.



Theatre Exile at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American Sts. Through May 13. Tickets $18-40. Information: 215-218-4022 or

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About this blog
Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer. She also is a contributing writer for Variety and American Theatre magazine. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of four books about four playwrights (Rabe, McNally, Miller, Albee), and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). Her 'weekend' job as a travel writer provides adventure: dogsledding in the Yukon, ziplining in Belize, walking coast-to-coast across England, and cowboying in the Australian Outback.

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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