×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Off Broadway Review: Martin McDonagh’s ‘Hangmen’

The morbid wit of playwright McDonagh (also writer-director of “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri”) remains corrosively funny on stage.

With:
Mark Addy, Owen Campbell, Billy Carter; Maxwell Caulfield; Johnny Flynn; Gaby French, Gilles Geary, Richard Hollis, John Horton, David Lansbury, Sally Rogers, Reece Shearsmith.

A huge hit in London, this Royal Court production of the black farce “Hangmen” — by Martin McDonagh, currently an awards-season darling as writer-director of “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” — makes a smooth transition to the Atlantic Theater with a largely American cast well-coached (by Stephen Gabis) in the dulcet dialect spoken in the rugged north of England. Under the fastidious direction of Matthew Dunster, the ensemble work is slickly well-oiled in the best tradition of barroom plays.

Mark Addy, all bluff and bluster as Harry Wade, the second-best hangman in all of England, demonstrates his handiwork in the opening scene. Set in 1963, when hanging was still considered a humane way to kill a person, the scene depicts the grim but seditiously funny execution of James Hennessey (Gilles Geary), who goes to his death protesting his innocence. “If you’d’ve just tried to relax, you could’ve been dead by now,” the hangman’s assistant, Syd Armfield (Reece Shearsmith, who really knows how to deliver McDonagh’s nasty bon mots), scolds the struggling prisoner.

Two years later, Harry the ex-second-best hangman in England is running an old-fashioned neighborhood pub (smartly executed in Anna Fleischle’s dark and appropriately depressing set) catering to picturesque locals played with gusto by Richard Hollis, Billy Carter and John Horton. Hanging has just been abolished in the UK and an enterprising reporter named Clegg (Owen Campbell, properly pushy) is badgering Harry for a quotable quote about the abolition of his old profession.

“Come on Harry,” Clegg goads him, “It’s not every day they abolish hanging, is it?  You must have summat to say.” But Harry wisely keeps his counsel, especially when a stranger from London ambles in, trailing a thick air of menace behind him.

The stranger’s name is Mooney and Johnny Flynn, who played the part at the Royal Court and made the commercial transfer to the West End, is an unholy terror in the role. Like one of Pinter’s dead-eyed intruders, Flynn’s Mooney has a quietly unnerving quality, like some unseen reptile lurking in the weeds. Even his most innocuous remarks sound ominous.

“I’m not from around these parts, you see,” he says, sounding like he just crawled out of a grave — or out of a Joe Orton play. “I do get about.”

Making himself at home in this inhospitable place, the intimidating stranger chats up the hangman’s awkward teenage daughter, Shirley (in a sensitive performance from Gaby French), rents a room from his accommodating wife, Alice (Sally Rogers, a pure pro), and puts the frighteners into poor Harry.

Meanwhile, Harry innocently raises a toast to “the end of hanging,” while acknowledging that he really won’t know what to do with himself now that the gallows has been struck down.

Ruminating on other forms of execution, he sneers at “the electric bloody chair,” advancing the theory that, “when that goes wrong they come out sizzling like a bloody steak.” Even more withering is his contempt for the guillotine, which is, after all, extremely messy — and French. “Who’s going to clean up mess after?” he demands, recoiling at the image of all those “heads bouncing around.”

Despite the howling laughter earned at the expense of these northern bumpkins and their semi-literate discourse, there’s a black storm cloud behind McDonagh’s surface wit. The distant rumbles surface in the second act when Mooney becomes more of a menace, openly challenging Harry about his swift execution of James Hennessey, and insinuating that he might get back at Harry through his innocent, unworldly daughter.

It’s a treat to watch these antagonists, played with excruciating edginess by Addy and Flynn, circling one another with murder in their eyes — all in the name of moral justice and righteous vengeance. The reasonable expectation is that they will be the death of one another. But in the end, McDonagh questions whether we even need official hangmen in the first place. Left to our own human devices, we will always find a way to kill one another.

Off Broadway Review: Martin McDonagh's 'Hangmen'

Atlantic Theater; 199 seats; $90 top. Opened on Feb. 5, 2018. Reviewed Feb. 1. Running time: TWO HOURS, 15 MIN.

Production: An Atlantic Theater Company presentation of the Royal Court Theater production of a play in two acts by Martin McDonagh.

Creative: Directed by Matthew Dunster. Sets & costumes, Anna Fleischle; lighting, Joshua Carr; sound, Ian Dickinson for Autograph; fight choreography, J. David Brimmer; dialect coach, Stephen Gabis; production stage manager, Hannah Sullivan.

Cast: Mark Addy, Owen Campbell, Billy Carter; Maxwell Caulfield; Johnny Flynn; Gaby French, Gilles Geary, Richard Hollis, John Horton, David Lansbury, Sally Rogers, Reece Shearsmith.

More Legit

  • CAROL CHANNING HERSCHFELD. Actress Carol Channing

    Remembering Carol Channing: A Master of Channeling the Power of Personality

    There was only one Carol Channing, and her outsize personality was a source of delight to many fans — and imitators. Gerard Alessandrini’s stage spoof “Forbidden Broadway” had many incarnations over the years, including the 1994 edition when an audience member was selected every evening to come onstage and impersonate Carol Channing with the cast. [...]

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    Viola Davis, Lin-Manuel Miranda Among Celebrities Remembering Carol Channing

    Viola Davis, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Bernadette Peters are among the slew of celebrities taking to Twitter to pay tribute to late singer, comedienne and actress Carol Channing. Known for her starring roles in Broadway’s “Hello Dolly!” and “Gentleman Prefer Blondes,” the legend of the stage and screen died Tuesday at her home in Rancho Mirage, [...]

  • What the Constitution Means to Me

    Listen: How Things Got Scary in 'What the Constitution Means to Me'

    For a decade, writer-performer Heidi Schreck had wanted to write a play inspired by her experiences as a teen debater. But over the years the show started to develop into something both urgently political and deeply personal — and things got scary. In the Broadway-bound “What the Constitution Means to Me,” Schreck reimagines her speech-and-debate [...]

  • Carol Channing Dead

    Carol Channing, Star of Broadway's 'Hello, Dolly!' and 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,' Dies at 97

    Larger-than-life musical stage personality Carol Channing, who immortalized the characters of Lorelei Lee in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and Dolly Gallagher Levi in “Hello, Dolly!,” has died. She was 97. Channing died Tuesday of natural causes at her home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Her publicist B. Harlan Boll confirmed the news. He wrote, “It is with [...]

  • 'What the Constitution Means to Me'

    'What the Constitution Means to Me' Transfers to Broadway

    “What the Constitution Means to Me,” a buzzy Off-Broadway production that counts Hillary Clinton and Gloria Steinem among its fans, is making the move uptown. The play will come to Broadway this spring for a 12-week limited run at the Helen Hayes Theater. “What the Constitution Means to Me” is one part civics lesson, one [...]

  • Choir Boy review

    Broadway Review: 'Choir Boy'

    Honestly, I was afraid that “Choir Boy” — the sweetly exuberant account of a gifted prep school boy’s coming of age, written by “Moonlight” Oscar winner Tarell Alvin McCraney — would be swallowed up in a Broadway house, after winning us over in an Off Broadway staging in 2013.  But aside from the odd set [...]

  • Jason Robert Brown

    Listen: How Ariana Grande Got Jason Robert Brown to Madison Square Garden

    Broadway composer Jason Robert Brown never expected to find himself performing onstage at Madison Square Garden. But he did — thanks to his pal Ariana Grande. Brown met Grande before she was a superstar, when she was in the 2008 Broadway cast of his teen musical “13.” The two have kept in touch ever since [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content