A Behanding in Spokane: Fun, Dumb, and Entertaining
A Behanding in Spokane, by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, has a high level of cartoonish glee, but with a sinister premise—a homicidal, one-handed sociopath named Carmichael (Gordon Carpenter) is looking for his other hand, which was severed by some sadistic teenagers in Spokane almost 30 years ago. The last time Carmichael saw it, the teenagers were using it to wave good-bye at him. When the play opens, Carmichael is in a seedy motel room waiting for a couple of small-time hoods (a boyfriend-girlfriend couple played by Corey Spruill and Hannah Mootz) to deliver what he hopes is his hand. They bring a hand, but it's not his. That's when the trouble—involving a candle, a large can of gasoline, and a suitcase full of other people's hands—begins.
The play is full of implausibility: Carmichael's hand was apparently severed by the teens holding it onto a track in front of an oncoming train. How, exactly, does that work, logistically speaking? And why does he still think his hand is actually around after three decades? And that some dumb pot dealer could find it intact for $500? No matter—McDonagh's gift has always been locating the macabre humor of people bickering over small, stupid details in the midst of improbable carnage. (The buckets of blood shed in his infamous Lieutenant of Inishmore, for example, begin with someone pet-sitting for a paramilitary nutcase.) This production of Behanding is fun, dumb, and entertaining, just like McDonagh's script—its star is neither the one-handed creep nor the dumb kids but Brandon Ryan as a philosophical hotel clerk who watches the mayhem with an insightful detachment reminiscent of a Quentin Tarantino character.
Behanding has one glaring problem that New Yorker critic Hilton Als drilled into during its New York premiere in 2010—the boy hoodlum is cast as black. McDonagh has set all of his other plays in rural Ireland, and he can mock his dumb, violent hick characters as viciously as he wants. But his attempts to use American race relations as material for gallows humor are tone-deaf and problematic. Everything McDonagh writes is offensive—he eats offensive for breakfast—but the difference between his other gruesome jokes and the race jokes in Spokane are like the difference between making fun of your own family and making fun of someone else's.
All in all, this is a pretty good production of a pretty good play, and Ryan's performance as the clerk is a wry joy to watch. Behanding wants you to wince—but sometimes it makes you wince for the wrong reasons.