Arch McDonagh takes a wrong turn to dead-end Americana
CULTURE SHOCK: For this awful, knowing parody in the Tarantino genre, McDonagh should return to his superior, terrible beauties
EVEN FOR admirers of Martin McDonagh (present company included), it is almost a relief that, before reaching 40 this month, he has finally hatched a turkey. Ever since the opening night of The Beauty Queen of Leenanein Galway in February 1996, the only thing that has slowed the progress of the Irish theatre’s wunderkind has been the deep drift of bouquets and laurels he has had to wade through. Some of us had begun to wonder whether the legal firm of Lucifer Beelzebub and Mephistopheles didn’t have a contract on file signed in suspiciously garish red ink. This, after all, is a writer who put together a little film so he could learn how to direct ( Six Shooter) and won an Oscar for it.
Given the flamboyance of McDonagh’s career, it is fitting that his new play on Broadway, A Behanding in Spokane, is a prince among turkeys – golden, organic and butter-basted. And the totality of the play’s failure may, in the long run, make it one of the most useful things he has done. Most major playwrights – indeed most serious artists – learn more from their disasters than from their triumphs. In that sense, A Behandingshould be a defining experience for McDonagh. It clarifies – for the viewer and perhaps for himself – the nature of his mercurial, mysterious talent by defining the ground over which it does not travel.
Understanding that the play is, indeed, very bad is not quite as straightforward as it should be. When people are paying $130 (€95) a ticket to get into the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre and greeting the curtain call with standing ovations, it is easy to fall for defensive delusions. But the poverty of the play is masked by Christopher Walken’s mesmerising performance in the central role of Carmichael, who lost a hand in his youth and has spent the rest of his life searching for it. As masks go, Walken would grace the most lavish Venetian carnival. He would be magnetic if he stood on stage reading the assembly instructions for an Ikea flat-pack sofa, and a lot of people would pay $130 to witness the act.
Walken is indeed magnificent here, and he clearly relishes McDonagh’s language and humour. McDonagh’s work always walks a line between the grotesque and the playful, between horror and hilarity. And nobody knows that line as well as Walken does. Every Walken take is a double take. He’s one of the very few actors who can have his tongue in his cheek at the same time as his teeth are in your flesh. He is a refugee from both Samuel Beckett (he has himself got up like the ghostly protagonist of Ohio Impromptu) and a schlock thriller. He is genuinely terrifying and not at all serious. The weird smile that plays around his lips is simultaneously an expression of psychosis and of knowing bonhomie. While he’s on stage (for about half the 90 minutes of the show), you can almost believe that there’s a play going on here.
The downside is that when Walken walks off stage (or rather climbs out the window of the dingy motel room in which all the action unfolds), there’s an almost palpable shock of realisation that the rest is not merciful silence but lame chatter. McDonagh has, among other things, always been a brilliant parodist – of John B Keane and Tom Murphy, of Synge and Beckett, of Pinter and the Brothers Grimm. But here he’s parodying himself: A Behandingfeels like nothing so much as an over-extended skit on McDonagh’s favourite tics – the meta-theatrical game-playing, the grand guignol of stray body parts (in this case a collection of severed hands), the repetitions and reversals of the dialogue, the self-conscious absurdities of plot. A parody of a parody may be the ultimate in post-modern theatre but it also proves in practice how blind an alley all this knowingness can become.
The problem becomes a simple one: A Behandingisn’t funny. The opening five minutes are grimly hilarious, and there are a few good jokes along the way.
But the action is far too slack for a successful farce. (Even the mechanics are extraordinarily lazy: the little grifters that Carmichael ties to the heating pipes are within reach of a phone but it doesn’t occur to them to call the cops.) And it’s far too self-satisfied to be outrageous. Sam Rockwell, who plays the motel receptionist, is a fine actor, but when he’s left to carry the burden of comic invention, it turns out to be an empty basket.
The question of taste also arises here. McDonagh has long been a master of bad taste (not at all the same thing as having no taste at all). But it’s been grounded in character – he gets away with pushing boundaries because he convinces you that this is what the character might actually say. But here there is no characterisation worth talking about. When Carmichael talks repeatedly of “niggers” and “fags”, and one of his captives, the ditzy Marilyn (Zoe Kazan) criticises his racism and homophobia, there’s a sense that McDonagh is not so much having his cake and eating it as licking the icing and then spitting it out. He wants the shock value but not the consequences.
A Behandingis like the can of gasoline that Carmichael places in the room with a lit candle on top – it never ignites. For all the elements of contrived controversy, it is actually rather tame. And this surely says something about McDonagh’s imagination. All games, however fancy, have to be played on solid ground. McDonagh’s brilliant stagecraft, his linguistic cleverness and his gifts as a fabulist have always had a ground beneath them. His versions of the West of Ireland, of the Northern Ireland conflict or of the dark world of childhood imagination may have large elements of parody but they are parodies of something real. That element of reality, however playfully refracted, anchors his humour and invention in genuine human emotions.
A Behandingis anchored only in what has always been the worst of McDonagh’s many sources of influence: Quentin Tarantino. It attempts the same kind of self-referential, movie-saturated, rather arch Americana.
McDonagh turns out to be no good at it. For me, at least, that is a cause for celebration. He is much, much better than Tarantino will ever be. When he remembers that, he may look back on the disaster of A Behandingas the mudslide that blocked a road he should not go down.
If it shows him where he shouldn’t go, it may also point him in the right direction – towards a deeper engagement with theterrible humour of humanity.