When Martin McDonagh’s “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” was first seen in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2001 Stratford staging and then in London the following year, it was greeted as an audacious triumph for the Anglo-Irish playwright and also as a reprimand to the venerable companies in England and Ireland too timid to produce the blood-drenched work. With its canny craftsmanship, Grand Guignol violence, savage black humor and vividly musical language, the play certainly commands attention — perhaps inevitable these days for a comedy about fanatical terrorism. But like so many London imports, something appears to have been diluted in the crossing, resulting in a satire without sting.
While it’s directed, designed and performed with wit and flair, McDonagh’s return to the Atlantic Theater Company — the scene of his first major New York success with “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” — falls short in one crucial aspect that has made his best plays so distinctive: It never gets under the skin. And considering the amount of skin that actually gets punctured and hacked up onstage, that feels like a failing.
A dazzling storyteller whose work never stints on surprises, McDonagh writes plays that invariably have more brains than heart. They function best when their glittering cruelty and lurid plotting are underscored by some suggestion of greater depth. In “Beauty Queen,” there was the haunting bitterness of a mother and daughter’s mutually destructive relationship; in “The Pillowman,” it is the unsettling awe of the power of fiction.
Here, the playwright addresses such weighty themes as the futility of Republican Ireland’s cycle of violence and the absurdity of splinter-group extremism. But in director Wilson Milam’s lively production, any potentially provocative takedown of the paramilitary mind-set is reduced to the level of a vicious jape.
There are enough corpses and gore littering the stage to make the buckets of blood in the current Broadway “Sweeney Todd” revival seem like a child’s tea party. But there’s nothing disturbing about the cartoon violence here. McDonagh’s play seems powered more by larkish feigned rage than by genuine moral outrage. So while there’s much entertainment in the sing-song Oyrish dialogue and scaldingly funny situations, the play ultimately feels rather empty.
The second installment in McDonagh’s Aran Islands trilogy, “Lieutenant” shrugs off the tenderness that colored its predecessor, “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” and goes instead for the comic jugular.
The title figure — or the first of two characters to claim that rank — is Padraic (David Wilmot), a hardline terrorist, considered “too mad” for the IRA, now ruffling feathers within the breakaway INLA faction. Introduced while torturing a drug dealer suspended by his ankles, Padraic offers the captive a choice of nipples to be sliced off but is distracted by upsetting news from his father, Donny (Peter Gerety), back in County Galway. It seems Padraic’s cat, Wee Thomas, is “poorly.”
McDonagh’s central joke is that such a merciless thug can maim or kill a human being without remorse but is torn apart by love of a pet animal — “me best friend in the world, he is.”
Taking “the first fecking boat in the fecking morning,” Padraic bolts back to Inishmore to discover Wee Thomas is worse than poorly: The cat’s brains have been bashed out by Padraic’s INLA cronies. Unable to control the loose cannon, whose solo antidrug crusade is harming a vital revenue stream for the group, they killed the cat to lure Padraic home, catch him off-guard and eliminate him.
Justifiably fearing his son’s psychopathic reaction, Donny and dim neighbor Davey (Domhnall Gleeson) have made blundering attempts to cover up the cat’s demise.
Before learning the truth, Padraic is met on arrival by Davey’s 16-year-old sister, Mairead (Kerry Condon), a tough, impassioned tomboy who soon has him contemplating the formation of a new, two-person splinter group. When Padraic’s INLA comrades appear, the sharp-shooting skills Mairead perfected by blinding cattle in a misguided meat-industry protest prove useful. But an incident involving her own beloved cat makes for a sticky resolution.
As the act-two mayhem escalates, designer Scott Pask’s shabby cottage interior, embedded in a stage transformed into barren, black rock, is bathed in blood and body parts. The influence of Quentin Tarantino is readily acknowledged in the over-the-top carnage and in scenes with multiple weapons simultaneously pointed at multiple targets. But McDonagh’s references are as much to Irish theater as to American film, with shadings not only of Tarantino and Sam Peckinpah, but also of Sean O’Casey and J.M. Synge.
Despite evident potential to dip further into the tradition of those playwrights with a truly subversive reinvention of the Irish peasant comedy and a biting reflection on the dangers of rabid patriotism, McDonagh seems content here to show off his considerable talents in blunt mockery.
Led by sharply honed comic turns from Wilmot and Condon (both veterans of the London production, as is director Milam), the terrific cast attacks the flavorful dialogue with relish. But while Davey is singled out as a “cowshite eejit,” the characters without exception are clueless dolts, making the comedy one-dimensional. With a playwright as gifted, original and clever as McDonagh, it seems legitimate to expect something more sly and subtle.