REVIEW: Martin McDonagh’s menacingly funny “Hangmen”

REVIEW: Martin McDonagh’s menacingly funny “Hangmen”

Acclaimed Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, fresh off the success of his new film “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”, is an undisputed master of dark comedy.  In “Hangmen”, his first new play since 2010, he proves, once again, why he’s owed that title.  

Both chilling and hilarious, the play, act one of which takes place on the day in 1965 that capital punishment was abolished in the United Kingdom, concerns the fictional Harry Wade (Mark Addy), Britain’s “second-best” professional hangman (“second-best” to Albert Pierrepoint (1905-1992), the historic “Official Executioner” who hanged over 400, later owned a pub, and crusaded against capital punishment) and now the owner of a pub in Northern England.  Hanging, I was surprised to learn, remained the preferred method of execution in England until its banning in 1965.

Alongside his stoically weary wife, Alice (Sally Rogers), “shy” teenage daughter, Shirley (Gaby French), a trio of alcoholic pub-regulars, and the local police inspector, Harry is visited by three men throughout the course of the play, each with his own vengeful motivations and machinations afoot—including a “menacing” Londoner named Peter Mooney (a terrific Johnny Flynn) who upends the dreary if predictable way of things in this pub on an auspicious day.  Though tempting, I won’t say more, because the fun of a McDonagh play, as in most theatre, is found it its surprises.

“Hangmen”, which opened last night at Atlantic Theater Company Off-Broadway, is a 2015 Royal Court Theatre production from London superbly directed by Matthew Dunster and featuring five British actors, three of whom starred in the original run.  The Americans in the balance of this excellent, ensemble cast blend seamlessly, though, and the play is unmistakably British, filled with “nowt”, “owt”, “int”, and “summat”, words like “palaver” (slang for idle talk) and references like “Babycham” (a light British perry—alcoholic pear cider—from the 60s).  

Audience members are to be forgiven for straining their ears or leaning in; the accents are thick, conversation fast, and dialect unsimplified.  I sat in the third row and missed a few things here and there, but it didn’t matter, and only added to the authentic charm—if you can use “charm” in regard to McDonagh—of the play’s specific time and place.

After a brisk opening scene featuring an over-before-you-know-it hanging on stage, and a magnificent set change from prison to pub (impressive set design by Anna Fleischle), act one plods a bit, fulfilling its requisite need for exposition as pints are filled and cigarettes smoked.  I worried at intermission whether Mr. McDonagh had lost his edge, but, thankfully, act two soars, packing the twists, violence, and laughs we’ve come to expect from the playwright.  I should never have doubted.

Mr. McDonagh’s worldview is decidedly grim, his finely etched characters steeped in moral ambiguity or indifference.  He relies upon the audience’s assumption of the worst and acceptance of information at face value to make “Hangmen” a deliciously surprising ride, and that bet more than pays off.

For a play about a hangman, the nature of justice, particularly with regard to capital punishment, is briefly, though pointedly, skewered—McDonagh skillfully infusing message interpolation and discussion of issues into the banter of his characters.  By play’s end, you come to realize there is a fine line between the hanged and the hangman, and as Harry and his stuttering former assistant, Syd, reflect on two men hanged for the same crime, this conversation sums it up:

Syd: it were more than likely one of them, weren’t it? So…
Harry: Aye. Or both of them, perhaps. Somehow.
Syd: (pause) Or neither.
Harry: Aye, or neither. (pause.) I suppose that’s just the way it goes, int it? With justice. (pause.) Ah well.

You hate to admit it, but Harry is right.  That is the way it goes.  And it’s why more than two-thirds of all countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice.  The United States, of course, remains an outlier among the western world.

This run of “Hangmen” was sold out before it even started, probably due to Mr. McDonagh’s current Hollywood fame and the Gross Theater’s mere 199 seat capacity, but have no fear, I would not be surprised if “Hangmen” ended up on Broadway this season or next.  It’s too good and too in-demand.  Smart producers: take notice.

Bottom Line: “Hangmen”, a hilarious dark comedy about vengeance, packs the top-notch twists, violence, and laughs we’ve come to expect from Irish playwright Martin McDonagh. Superbly acted and directed, this sold out limited run will likely end up on Broadway, and for good reason.  See it if you can.

Linda Gross Theater
Atlantic Theater Company
336 West 20th Street
New York, NY 10011

Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: February 5, 2018
Final Performance: March 7, 2018
Tickets: although sold out, enterprising theatregoers should monitor the Atlantic Theatre Company’s website because returned tickets do become available from time to time

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tl;dr for February 5th