Theater review: ‘The Cripple of Inishmaan’ at the Kirk Douglas Theatre
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The wicked hilarity of Martin McDonagh’s “The Cripple of Inishmaan” satisfies a tasty lust: It indulges our desire for aggressive laughter without trampling our need for more delicate sentiment.
In other words, this 1996 comedy delivers jolly dark fun that allows us to feel somehow all sweet and sensitive when it’s done. Credit the sensational Druid and Atlantic Theater touring production, now at the Kirk Douglas Theatre through May 1, for pulling off the paradox.
Set on one of the Aran Islands, so beloved by J.M. Synge, the play, under Garry Hynes’ keen direction, takes place in 1934, just as the American filmmaker Robert Flaherty has arrived to make “Man of Aran.” The news of the Hollywood invasion is slow to travel, but once it does all hell breaks loose.
The opening scene establishes McDonagh’s game of stretching stereotypes to the breaking point. Two “aunties,” Eileen (Dearbhla Molloy, who played the role in the play’s London world premiere) and Kate (Ingrid Craigie), stand behind the counter of their country shop commiserating over their grown nephew, cripple Billy (Tadhg Murphy), whose parents died under mysterious circumstances soon after he was born. “Billy has a host of troubles,” sighs Kate.
“Billy has a hundred troubles,” echoes Eileen.
The list includes a mangled leg and arm and, even more disturbing in this backwater, an obsession with reading and thinking. The immediate crisis, however, is that he has gone to see a doctor about his wheezing chest and hasn’t returned for tea, leaving the women who raised him wondering if he stopped to look at a cow, as is his crazy wont.
“A fool’s waste of time that is, looking at a cow,” snorts Kate, who enjoys chatting with stones herself. Yet the real worry is that Billy will never find a wife. Even if the sorry young man hasn’t fallen into a ditch on his way home, as Kate fears, his prospects are bleak.
Fortunately, Billy hobbles in just in time to hear the exciting news about the movie being made on nearby Inishmore. JohnnyPateenMike (Dermot Crowley), who shamelessly barters gossip for food and drink for himself and his drunken elderly mammy (Nancy E. Carroll), exclaims like a provincial Perez Hilton that the film will reveal to the world how life is lived in their forgotten corner and that anyone lucky enough to get cast will be whisked back to Hollywood for a golden existence.
Billy, portrayed with an affectionate alertness by Murphy, recognizes this as a once in a lifetime opportunity. He finagles transportation from BabbyBobby (Liam Carney), who has already promised to bring Slippy Helen (Clare Dunne), the violent tempered lass who has captivated Billy’s heart, and her brother Bartley (Laurence Kinlan), a dolt obsessed with telescopes and penny-sweets, to the neighboring island in his boat.
Billy’s fate is reported in stages, as the action stays largely confined to the aunts’ shop, with only the occasional detour. But without giving too much away, let’s just say it’s a riotously contentious ride that demonstrates, with a thousand expletives and hard whacks, the difficulty of finding quotidian happiness, never mind transcendent glory.
The second act is wobbly in its structure and uncertain in its pacing, but the devastating humor never falters. McDonagh uproariously sends up romantic myths about Ireland, revealing (as is his custom) the black lining in the picturesque cloud.
With the exception of poor kindhearted Billy and his daft but loving aunts, the characters are a relentlessly belligerent bunch. Helen, a cross between Pegeen Mike from Synge’s “The Playboy of the Western World” and a “Sopranos”-like hit woman, has a penchant for pegging eggs at people — that is, when she’s not knocking off a goose or hacking a cat. JohnnyPateenMike, a rumor-mongering leprechaun of a man, murderously plies his mother with Irish whiskey even though her doctor (Paul Vincent O’Connor) warns that her liver is on its last legs.
If I bring up the clubbing, you’ll no doubt have trouble believing that this is actually one of the playwright’s gentler offerings. Indeed, it’s far less blood-soaked than “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” and not half as sadistic as “The Pillowman,” though don’t expect a roaring peat fire and a cozy bedtime story over brandy.
Kudos to Hynes for balancing the play’s mix of mockery and truth in her internationally acclaimed production. Artistic director of the Galway-based Druid, she is an experienced hand with McDonagh, having won a Tony for her staging of “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” and she works out a marvelous détente between overstatement and understatement that her cast and design team execute to perfection.
The recurring joke is that Ireland mustn’t be such a bad place if the Yanks choose to do their filming there. Why do so many people want to visit these feuding characters’ rainy homeland? “Because in Ireland,” JohnnyPateenMike pauses from his vicious blabber-mouthing to explain, “the people are more friendly.”
“The Cripple of Inishmaan,’ Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays (Call for exceptions.) Ends May 1. Price: $20-$45.(213) 628-2772 or www.centertheatregroup.org Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes