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NEW YORK – Jaded film students will get a huge kick out of Slippy Helen, one of the virulently opinionated characters in The Cripple of Inishmaan, sharing her unappreciative views on Robert Flaherty‘s milestone 1934 documentary, Man of Aran. “What’s to fecking see anyways but more wet fellas with awful jumpers on them?” she complains in shrill tones, in between torturing her brother and taunting an old woman about her enfeebled mind. Helen’s terse assessment at the end of the church-hall screening on a stained bed sheet is even more blunt: “Oh thank Christ the fecker’s over. A pile of fecking shite.”
With typically spry wit and irreverent ethnographic insight, Martin McDonagh‘s grubby jewel of a play uses the shooting of Flaherty’s seminal non-fiction film as the spark for a pitch-black comedy about Irishness. The triptych portrait of Daniel Radcliffe on the Playbill cover makes no mistake about the marquee draw, and the Harry Potter star has never been better, more than measuring up in this flawless ensemble. But to quote Hamlet, “the play’s the thing” in Michael Grandage‘s cracking production, which makes an entertainingly boozy brew of humor both sweet and savage, melancholy sentimentality, lacerating sorrow and wicked cruelty.
The production transfers from a sold-out London engagement as part of the inaugural season of Grandage’s new company, formed since the end of his tenure as artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse. McDonagh’s 1996 play was last seen in New York in a superlative 2008 staging from Galway’s Druid Theatre Company that seemed as close to perfection as one could wish for. But this first Broadway presentation not only withstands the comparison, it’s notably funnier.
It’s also designed with enveloping artistry, evident in Christopher Oram‘s harshly beautiful sets and characterful costumes, Paule Constable‘s exquisite lighting and the transporting Celtic strains of Alex Baranowski‘s music.
With its rocky shores and stone walls beaten by wind and rain and swelling waves, this is a place of stifling monotony that seldom sees sunlight, populated by people whose identity is imprinted with a national history of hunger and oppression. But one of McDonagh’s hilarious running jokes is the characters’ constant attempt to grab hold of some shred of patriotic pride, starting with news of the film crew arriving on the neighboring island of Inishmore. “Ireland mustn’t be such a bad place so if the Yanks want to come to Ireland to do their filming,” says the verbose Johnnypateenmike (Pat Shortt).
McDonagh’s facility for the baroque musicality of Irish vernacular is established from the outset, as is the extreme isolation of his characters and their sneaky sense of schadenfreude at one another’s minor misfortunes. As the aged spinster sisters Eileen and Kate Osbourne (Gillian Hanna and Ingrid Craigie) stack canned peas — the sole item available in any quantity in their not-so-general store — their prattling dialogue is a back-and-forth of repetitions and elaborations on similar themes, mainly on the late return home of their adoptive nephew Cripple Billy (Radcliffe).
The bits of news from outside these women receive come either from the elusive egg-man or from the self-inflated Johnnypateen, who exchanges tidbits for groceries to feed himself and the “drunkard Mammy” (June Watson, priceless) he’s been trying to kill with booze. Among such useless nuggets as someone hurling a Bible into the sea or a villager’s goose biting a neighbor’s cat and starting a feud, Johnnypateen drops the bombshell of “Hollywood” coming to Inishmore. What’s more, he reveals that Flaherty is casting locals for a million-dollar motion picture to be shown throughout the world.
This prompts Helen McCormick (Sarah Greene), a russet-haired beauty with a vile temper and a mouth like a longshoreman, and her eedjit brother Bartley (Conor MacNeill), to hitch a ride to the island with boatman Babbybobby (Padraic Delaney) in search of fame.
Billy, in addition to a gammy arm and a petrified leg that constrains his movement to a laborious shuffle, has had a pathological fear of the water since infancy, when his parents drowned. But he secures passage on Babbybobby’s curragh. The means by which Billy convinces the widowed boatman to take him are classic McDonagh — establishing a character as the stigmatized village victim only to reveal that he’s as capable of self-serving unscrupulousness as anyone else.
There are moments in The Cripple of Inishmaan when it’s easy to deceive yourself that this is a sweeter, kinder, quainter McDonagh than the malevolent orchestrator behind plays like The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Pillowman, or the movies In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. But this is a writer who delights in upending any false sense of coziness. His work is distinguished by the vigorous interplay of his characters — full of surprising behavioral twists and moments of exhilarating absurdity. The whiplash turns of these people from affectionate gestures to shocking heartlessness make the characters crackle with life. And Grandage’s expertly paced production keeps a firm grasp on the unpredictable nature of McDonagh’s plotting.
Even Billy’s benign old “aunties” are not averse to the occasional glint of viciousness. “I hope the boat sinks before it ever gets him to America,” seethes Eileen when they hear that he’s sailed off to Hollywood without a word. “I hope he drowns like his mammy and daddy before him,” agrees Kate. “Or are we being too harsh on him?” wonders Eileen. These two are a formidable comedy double-act, played with doddery charm, crankiness and fissures of sad soulfulness by Hanna and Craigie.
There’s not a weak link in the cast, but the gorgeous Greene is just marvelous; her Helen is a spiky presence as perversely endearing as she is frightening. As for Radcliffe, this adventurous young actor could be living idly off Potter revenues forever, but continues to stretch himself on the stage after doing impressive work in Equus and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. His accent, at least to these ears, is no less convincing than the cast’s Irish natives, and he’s masterful at conveying a forlorn sense of solitude while firing off sly put-downs that illustrate Billy’s underestimated intelligence. His fever-dream monologue in Act II gives the play an unsettling element of mystery. But this being McDonagh, a coming-of-age yarn without a long shadow of gloom was never going to happen.
Venue: Cort Theatre, New York (runs through July 20)
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Gillian Hanna, Ingrid Craigie, Pat Shortt, Conor MacNeill, Sarah Greene, Padraic Delaney, Gary Lilburn, June Watson
Director: Michael Grandage
Playwright: Martin McDonagh
Set & costume designer: Christopher Oram
Lighting designer: Paule Constable
Music & sound designer: Alex Baranowski
Presented by Michael Grandage Company, Arielle Tepper Madover, L.T.D. Productions, Stacey Mindich, Starry Night Entertainment, Scott M. Delman, Martin McCallum, Stephanie P. McClelland, Zeilinger Productions, The Shubert Organization
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