If you’re looking to fill the role of an A-grade “cracker motherfucker,” to use the parlance of Martin McDonagh, then Christopher Walken is your go-to guy. Imagine the actor’s hidden-wristwatch tale from “Pulp Fiction” bulked up into a freestanding narrative and you have an approximate idea of “A Behanding in Spokane,” a piece of virtuoso storytelling fashioned out of a slim anecdote. There’s no broader theme, no veiled subtext and no underlying allegory. The playwright makes no pretense of doing anything beyond spinning a good yarn. Entertaining as it is, however, the black comedy remains insubstantial.
While there are a lot of laughs and style to burn in both John Crowley’s production and McDonagh’s new play, the deluxe treatment ultimately shines a brighter spotlight right through the skeletal material. In the Irish playwright’s first work set in the U.S., there’s a nod to the futile quest for justice and retribution in “this sad, decaying nation.” But a nod is all it is.
Framed by a distressed proscenium, Scott Pask’s design whips back a soiled curtain to reveal a seedy hotel room that appears to have leapt from the imagination of William Burroughs. And Brian MacDevitt’s lighting douses the scene in a jaundiced glow that makes it the perfect window for Walken’s clammy-cool performance.
The actor is caricaturing himself, but his enjoyment in doing so is contagious. Walken draws on a seemingly endless repertoire of ways to express contempt, disgust, menace and malevolent boredom while playing Carmichael, a straggly-haired sociopath who has spent 47 years searching for his severed hand. From the moment we first see him, unperturbed and unsmiling as he pulls a gun from his rumpled black hangman’s coat and proceeds to deal with the gagged figure rattling around in the hotel closet, the audience eats it up.
With a lifetime of grievances behind him, Carmichael doesn’t take kindly to being scammed. So he’s not inclined to go easy on Toby (Anthony Mackie) and Marilyn (Zoe Kazan), the hapless weed dealers who tried to collect a reward by passing off a hand pilfered from a museum display as his missing appendage. The fact that the bogus body part came from a black person only adds to racist Carmichael’s cold fury.
The couple gets little help from hotel desk clerk Mervyn (Sam Rockwell), too dangerously stupid to have much concern for his own safety, let alone theirs. His history of being ripped off by Toby makes Mervyn delight in the guy’s discomfort as he sits cuffed to a radiator pipe, soaked in petrol and awaiting the return of the still-handless executioner.
In a script stuffed with profane verbal pyrotechnics and flagrant political incorrectness, McDonagh gets major comic mileage out of pea-brain Marilyn’s umbrage over the offensive terminology Carmichael employs while threatening their lives. But aside from an inspired bit of physical comedy when she shimmies up the wall, Kazan is the weakest link. Not given much assistance by the playwright, she enters in shrill high-anxiety mode and has nowhere to go.
While none of the characters has an arc to play, Walken’s best backup comes from Mackie, who puts a motormouth comic’s spin on a role originally rumored for Chris Rock. Toby is the one character believably terrified of Carmichael, even more so after he mishandles a phone call from the latter’s mom. His fear raises the stakes, and Carmichael’s mother issues take the already absurdist tale on an amusing, off-kilter tangent in one of Walken’s more deranged arias.
The always likable Rockwell does doofus shtick we’ve seen from him before. He gets lumbered with an extraneous monologue early on that feels like padding in such an undernourished frame. It sucks the tension out of the action, and the short play takes its time rebuilding steam.
While McDonagh’s previous stage works reportedly were written in a sustained burst of early-career productivity, “Spokane” was penned following completion of his 2008 feature debut as writer-director, “In Bruges.” It feels here as if the playwright is catering to his fans’ expectations — the gruesome flourishes and blithe violence, the lacerating dialogue and savage humor, the maniacal characters and explosive confrontations — but in sketch form rather than a full-bodied play. All the same, many will be delighted with what he serves up.
McDonagh has never made any great claim of thematic weight, and even his quasi-political plays, “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” and “The Pillowman,” are stronger on narrative meat than message. Which ain’t no crime. But especially coming after last season’s brilliant revival of “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” with its balance of searing poignancy and cruelty, the grubby razzle-dazzle of this funny throwaway feels a tad lazy.