Perhaps it’s one character’s inordinate desire for sweets that has resulted in the toothless American premiere of “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” the wonderful Martin McDonagh play that was a highlight of the last London theater year. McDonagh has made a big noise this New York season with the Broadway-bound “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” but on second viewing, “Inishmaan” leaves no doubt that it is easily the better play: less manipulative, funnier, more truthful and mature. Its virtues are joyously embodied as before in its shining, open-faced lead, Ruaidhri Conroy, the lone holdover from the Royal National Theater production — but mostly ignored by the rest of the cast and by director Jerry Zaks. O “Cripple,” where is thy sting? The answer lies somewhere over the Atlantic, where “Cripple” joins countless other British hits that have been hobbled by the crossing.
Tony Walton’s dispiritingly literal-minded set provides an immediate tip-off that Zaks’ New York version won’t even be attempting the sly, cockeyed take on an ingeniously skewed script that director Nicholas Hytner and designer Bob Crowley brought to “Cripple” in London.
On paper, the Zaks of old (i.e. pre-“Smokey Joe’s Cafe”) may have seemed a smart choice for a play whose tragicomic mix isn’t a million miles removed in tone from the John Guare plays with which Zaks largely made his name. Indeed, the deluded dreamers of Queens in “The House of Blue Leaves” live no less bleakly fanciful an existence than the Irish islanders on Inishmaan, circa 1934. McDonagh’s world is one in which “a fence and a hen” qualify as major sights, while America — not to mention American candies — induce a constant craving.
What, then, has gone wrong? The issue is one of attack in a play whose frequent bouts of violence in no way preempt its compassion. Conroy’s Cripple Billy gets thumped and bruised at various times, but he remains eager for experience, whether as a guest in Hollywood (to which he pays a fleeting and unproductive visit) or back on home turf, where he asks for little more than a kiss. While Billy deals with adolescent longing, island life goes on: Kate (Elizabeth Franz) and Eileen (Roberta Maxwell), Billy’s doting “aunts” — the women are not technically related to him — fret and scold and tend a store stocked mostly with peas, even as local hellion Helen (Aisling O’Neill) breaks eggs over the head of telescope-obsessed brother Bartley (Christopher Fitzgerald) in what is her own idiosyncratic take on Anglo-Irish relations.
Resident gossip Johnnypateenmike (Donal Donnelly) continues to try to kill with booze his hard-drinking, bed-ridden Mammy (Eileen Brennan) — shades, here, of “Beauty Queen” — and the entire community pricks up its ears at the arrival on neighboring Inishmore of filmmaker Robert Flaherty, who has come to shoot his now-celebrated “Man of Aran.” Does Billy have it in him to be a star? That’s the briefly held hope, much to the chagrin of the fierce-talking Helen, who derails her own route to Hollywood fame by inadvertently sleeping with the wrong men.
But for all the pull of America, Billy returns to his roots, to a community marked by equal parts idle conjecture and malicious rumor-mongering, and by no shortage of cows.
The play is a deeply felt black comedy, both rigorous and romantic, and it succumbs to sentimentality only once in a speech from Cripple Billy that indulges the same sanctimoniousness spryly sent up elsewhere. It’s doubly bizarre, then, to find a cast content to play cute (Donnelly) or bland (Fitzgerald, who barely even tries an accent) or, in the case of O’Neill’s feisty “fecker” of a Helen, so straight that she all but steamrolls the wit inherent in the part. As Billy’s adoring spinster “aunts,” Franz and Maxwell are too knowing, as if aware of dually constituting a “turn”; both of them could use some of the flinty cheek displayed by Brennan’s bed-ridden mother, a tiny part well-filled by a welcome New York theater veteran.
Conroy, by contrast, is a newcomer to the American stage, and one wonders whether he will ever find another role that so well deploys his utterly unaffected radiance. Rail-thin, feet turned inwards, he resembles a guileless stork, though the performance is by no means only about Billy’s appearance. “I’ve no desire to injure livestock,” says Billy early on, adding, revealingly, that he would rather read a book. And what’s remarkable about Conroy’s performance is how beautifully it reads: In a play whose unmistakable heart has turned somewhat hollow in New York, Conroy’s wise yet innocent Billy remains, blessedly, the real thing.