A Behanding in Spokane

by John Stoltenberg

Martin McDonagh is one of my favorite living playwrights. I can’t quite explain why. Something about the way he makes nuttiness hilarious. Something about the way his humor is at once dark as night, grisly as gristle, and light as a souffle. His weird stuff just keeps on surprising in a most peculiarly satisfying way. I don’t know how else to put it.

So of course I had to check out the new production of McDonagh’s A Behanding in Spokane at the Keegan Theatre. And what a delightfully demented headtrip it was.

The story is loony. It really is about a long-ago dismembered hand and its owner’s twisted quest to find it. Yeah, I know: What could be funny about that? Well, trust McDonagh to make it so.

I saw the Broadway production starring Christopher Walken as Carmichael, the one-handed wonder of a main character. Mark A. Rhea doesn’t quite command the stage as Walken did (who could, really?), but you have to hand it to him (groan), he comes darn near close.

We meet Carmichael in a seedy dump of a hotel room where he has come to rendezvous with a couple scammers who have led him to believe they can sell him his old hand. They are a hysterical twosome, excellently performed: Toby (played by Manu Kumasi), a young black man given comedically to intermittent weeping, and his white girlfriend, Marilyn (Laura Herren), the least unhinged character in the play and, in a way, its earnest reference point for logic as all bizarreness breaks loose.

But for my money the most memorable character in this production turned out to be Mervyn, the hapless hotel desk clerk. Mervyn has a monologue that on paper has some of  Behanding’s funniest writing, but as performed by Bradley Foster Smith, it became a showstopper. This actor brought cadences and inflections to the text that would have made the playwright cheer. May I suggest that McDonagh meet Smith someday and write for him some more?

If you’ve never before seen anything by McDonagh, a word of advice: Leave all your expectations at home. Just catch this show at Keegan.

Of only one thing can you be certain: You’ll need both hands to applaud.