Volume 76, Number 2 | May 31 - June 6 2006

Theater

This poor pussy cat isn’t the only character to suffer in Martin McDonagh’s grotesque, gruesome, and crowd-pleasing play, “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” starring (from left) Peter Gerety and Domhinall Gleeson.

A twisted, Tony-nominated hit

By Jerry Tallmer

Whenever I laughed at Martin McDonagh’s “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” I knew I’d hate myself in the morning.

The first such occasion, hard on the heels (more accurately, ripped-off toenails) of a bare-chested, bloodied, upside-down dangling man under torture by the play’s moralistic quasi-hero, was when, just afterward, in a darkling cottage elsewhere on the island of Inishmore, one oafish character says to another, much as my father would often say to a very young me: ”Nighty-night … Don’t let the bedbugs be biting.” (My father actually used to say: “Don’t let the bedbugs bite,” but he was not Irish.)

These particular two oafish characters are:

a) Donnie Osbourne, 60-ish, as solid as a chunk of wood but as noisy as a boiler factory; never speaks when he can shout, never shouts when he can bellow, and has a lot to bellow about because of the death by highway accident of Wee Thomas, Donnie’s terrorist son’s beloved black cat, left in dada’s care while Padraic, the son — too crazy for the IRA — does a little independent torturing and bombing just to keep his hand in.

b) Davey Claven, late 20s (in this production), tall, neurotic, fumble-footed, sporting a foot-and-a-half blondish reddish pony tail – the remote island’s much-put-upon gay hippie, if he is indeed gay as everybody thinks but we do not really know. We also do not know if it was Davey Claven’s bike, with Davey atop it, that crushed Wee Thomas just outside Donnie Osbourne’s cottage, or if Davey merely saw poor half-crushed Wee Thomas lying there and brought him inside for possible life-saving. What we do know is that Donnie’s son Padraic, once he gets finished ripping out toenails, is going to be so pissed to find out Wee Thomas is dead, he’ll surely gun down his own parent and this poor young bicycling schmuck, Davey, right alongside him.

So what’s needed is a substitute Wee Thomas — a borrowed (without permission) creature that has to be dyed black with shoe polish. Solution: Sir Roger Casement, named for the hanged Irish patriot — Sir Roger, the cherished pet of Davey Claven’s sister Mairead, a 16-year-old flaming romantic revolutionist who from 60 yards away can shoot out a cow’s eye, or a man’s eye, with her air rifle.

It’s from the above exchange of felines that everything else follows — with all the insane logic of a Rube Goldberg contraption — in Mr. McDonagh’s grotesquely, gruesomely crowd-pleasing rigadoon.

It was possible to discern that the crowd at the Lyceum was pleased when, with the first tossing of the limp guts and brains of Wee Thomas from tabletop to floor, customers all over the house started howling: “Oww! Oww! Oww!” like fraternity boys at a hootchie-kooch show. Whatever the merits of “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” by way of parody – and they are several, if a bit over-obvious and overdone – it is the public’s gluttony for gore (meaning mercurochrome or ketchup or anything splashy and red) that this comedy most unashamedly exploits. Comic-strip comedy, it might more properly be said: the comedy of WHAM! ZAP! POW! ZOWIE! WHACK! with an Irish lilt.

And yet, and yet. There is wit here, nuggets of it scattered throughout, not least in the case of Padraic the fanatic, whose dry exactitude corrects a rival revolutionist’s inquiry — “Does the word ‘splinter group’ mean anything to you?”— with a cool: “‘Splinter group’? Splinter group’s two words.” And, for turnaround wit, will himself be as dryly corrected in the moment, now back in Donnie’s cottage, that that same rival, or disciplined IRA hard man, is about to remove Donnie’s erratic son from among the living:

PADRAIC: Christy, now? You wouldn’t be killing a fella in front of his dad, would ya?

CHRISTY: You’re behind your dad.

As, right then and there, Padraic geographically onstage is.

Oh, hell, I certainly cracked a smile, at least, all the way back in the dangling-man torture scene, when, as Padraic is about to remove his victim’s left nipple, a cell phone bizarrely goes off. “Will you hang on a minute. James?” torturer murmurs to torturee. Withdrawing the phone from a pocket, he listens to his father’s stalling about Wee Thomas. “Put Wee Thomas on the phone!” the son demands, and when that demand is not met, hurls the cell phone to the ground, draws his gun, and blows the damned thing to smithereens. This admirable elimination with prejudice of an instrument of the devil is not in the script I have. We must have to thank director Wilson Milam.

We must also of course have to thank an actor here and there; in fact, each and every one of them.

These begin with as stout, Peter Gerety booming Donnie in that grim cottage.

Then gawky, fulminating Domhinall Gleeson as much-put-upon though all too inept (as a cat-napper) Davey Claven, fighting to save his bicycle and his own skin.

Then all the others in support, Jeff Binder, Andrew Connolly, Dashell Eaves, and most especially Brian D’Arcy James in the so-called small part of the skeptic sub-terrorist who wants everyone to know that it wasn’t Marx who said the ends justify the means. Doesn’t know who said it, but it wasn’t Marx.

And then, of course, many-shaded David Wilmot as our hot-eyed Padraic, the nut case who would just as soon kiss as kill, kill as kiss, all in the name of Ireland. The one he kisses here is another (and icier) fanatic, that 16-year-old with her blinding B-B gun, played by a sexy, skinny, angry Alison Pill who somehow reminds me of the lost little girl on the railroad tracks in Tennessee Williams’s “This Property Is Condemned.”

“Ah, Mairead,” Padraic proclaims to her just before Fate shakes one final cat’s tail at him. Or cat’s tale. “Ah, Mairead. Y’know, all I ever wanted was an Ireland free. Free for kids to run and play, Free for fellas and lasses to dance and sing,” etc., etc. This is satire writ glaring enough to provoke the question: How banal can you get? Which, however, is — let’s give it to them — the whole point of playwright McDonagh’s and director Milam’s “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” bloodied curtains, bloodied garments, bloodied hands up to the elbow, deafening (Irish?) tom-toms, and all.

Once upon a time mobs rioted in Ireland when John Millington Synge showed his countrymen these same home truths about themselves, but in much milder, more agreeable, terms and colors. Rioters did the same to Sean O’Casey, 15 or 20 years later. And now we are 80-something years beyond that. But oh, my friends, and ah, my foes, where are we?

I had a thought mid-play, mid-torture: What would somebody who was having his or her head sawed off in Iraq think of the fun and games at the Lyceum? At which precise point, an actor on stage began sawing off the (oh well, simulated) head of the corpse of a character who’d been played by another actor on that same stage. To go to yet another great Irishman, who can tell the dancer from the dance?

 
THE LIEUTENANT OF INISHMORE. By Martin McDonagh. Directed by Wilson Milam. Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street, (212) 239-6200.

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