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.