Given an American premiere last season at the Joseph Papp Public Theater that was too broad — more Oyrish than Irish — the Geffen Playhouse’s production of “The Cripple of Inishmaan” has attempted to rectify that problem by importing a few actors with the right credentials. Under the direction of Joe Dowling, this “Cripple” benefits immensely from the lovely comic performance of Dearbhla Molloy, who played the role of Eileen in the original Royal National Theatre production of the play. And from Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, Thomas MacGreevy and Rosaleen Linehan give understated and overstated performances, respectively, in supporting roles that require just such radically different interpretations.
The brilliance of Martin McDonagh’s play is that he takes an exceedingly glum situation and turns it into a comedy of uncommon hilarity. Just when Cripple Billy (Fred Koehler) thinks his life on the bleak island of Inishmaan can’t get any worse, there’s a whole village full of idiots reminding him that it can. And it does, repeatedly.
Political correctness had not yet arrived on Inishmaan back in 1934 when filmmaker Robert Flaherty came from Hollywood to film the documentary “Man of Aran,” one of his follow-ups to the classic “Nanook of the North.”
Flaherty never appears in McDonagh’s play, but the famous filmmaker’s brief visit to the island offers Billy, the title character, his only possibility of escape from a theater of cruelty that never speaks the words “challenged” and “handicapped.” Will Billy be cast in Flaherty’s documentary? Will a trip to Hollywood make the poor boy into a movie star? Can something even mildly upbeat happen to an Irish cripple?
At one point, the orphaned Billy wonders if his infirmity was the result of his drunken father beating his pregnant mother. (Both parents have since drowned in a boating accident that may or may not have been a double suicide.) “No,” replies the kindly doctor. “It’s the disease, so don’t go romanticizing it.”
Many of the scenes in “The Cripple” are written as two-character sketches: the spinster sisters (Molloy and Barbara Tarbuck) fighting over who eats more of their store’s goods; the town gossip (Max Wright) and his alcoholic mother (Linehan) wishing the worst for each other; and the bully Helen (Derdriu Ring), who can’t help but beat up on her good dimwitted brother, Bartley (J.D. Cullum).
These comic duos play expertly onstage together. A sign of McDonagh’s talent is that he keeps blurring the line between his alpha comics and his straight men; the two miraculously keep changing roles during their respective routines. Add to this his unbelievable wit, as sharp as it is perverse, and “The Cripple of Inishmaan” is nearly a masterwork.
“Cripple” opened in New York City almost concurrently with the Broadway production of McDonagh’s “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” which, according to most reviewers, is the superior play. Certainly, “Beauty Queen” got the better, more authentic production, populated as it was with Irish actors under the direction of Tony Award winner Garry Hynes of the Abbey Theatre.
The Public Theater’s production of “Cripple” was broadly played, but the fact remains that the comedy is pretty broadly written. “Cripple,” however, is never obvious in its effects as is “Beauty Queen,” which keeps hitting you with matricide, stove-top torture and other Grand Guignol effects to move along its narrative. “Cripple” also has its share of lurid secrets to drop, but they’re more seamlessly built into McDonagh’s storyline.
As Billy, Koehler creates a beautiful, quiet space at the play’s center. While everyone else is bound to someone in a not-exactly-love/hate relationship, Billy stands, albeit wobbly, alone. Perhaps in later performances Koehler will learn how to use his size — he appears to tower over most of the other actors — to play more effectively against type.
Billy’s is a cruel world, which doesn’t exactly excuse the physically ugly production at the Geffen. The scenery by Frank Hallinan Flood is oddly, disconcerting cubist — as if designed by a minor Picasso during his very obscure brown period. Chris Parry’s lighting is harsh and Matthew LeFebvre’s costumes are appropriately dull.