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 www.theatreexile.org