Martin McDonagh, the celebrated playwright who also found big-screen success with “In Bruges” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” began his career penning bleak Irish dramas as potent as any Jameson special reserve.
McDonagh’s early work, “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” justly vaulted him to fame with its creepy amalgam of cruelty, violence and Irish gallows humor of the very darkest stripe. “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” now being presented in Glendale by the Antaeus Theatre Company, launched McDonagh’s Aran Islands trilogy in 1996. The play receives a hit-and-miss treatment from director Steven Robman, who doesn’t separate the gritty from the twee in this checkered production.
The action — or inaction — is set in 1934 on a remote Irish island where nothing really happens. The smallest incidents — a goose biting a cat’s tail, for instance — can spark gleeful gossip and looming feuds.
So when director Robert J. Flaherty films his classic documentary “Man of Aran” nearby, the community, dazzled by the prospect of appearing in a Hollywood “fill-um,” is understandably in a dither. For “Cripple” Billy Claven (Matthew Grondin), the butt of constant ridicule and abuse by the villagers for his dragging leg and useless arm, it’s the best hope of escape from an existence he finds insupportable.
As is typical with Antaeus, two alternating casts consist of fine actors. They manage believable Irish speech under the tutelage of dialect coach Lauren Lovett. Anyone who has suffered through an Irish play mangled by an American cast will realize that’s no mean feat.
John Iacovelli’s starkly simple set is enhanced by lighting and projection co-designers Kaitlyn Pietras and Jason H. Thompson, whose ever-shifting rear projections add spark to the play’s desolate backwater setting. Jeff Gardner’s sound and Garry Lennon’s costumes are also first-rate.
“The Cripple of Inishmaan,” however, is arguably one of McDonagh’s most sentimentalized and obvious works — a blatant misrepresentation of Irish peasantry so reductive that it requires special handling to prevent it from crashing into caricature. Unfortunately, Robman’s staging fails to place the play in a consistently realistic context that would offset its ethnic archness.
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‘The Cripple of Inishmaan’
Where: Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center, 110 E. Broadway, Glendale
When: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, 8 p.m. Mondays; ends March 11
Information: (818) 506-1983, www.Antaeus.org
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
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