No thumbs for A Behanding

This post first appeared, in a slightly different form, on Blogcritics.org.

What do you get when you blend violence-as-humor, ironic use of racial and other epithets, casual misogyny, and the kind of relentless profanity that’s the sure sign of a lazy writer who can’t be bothered to come up with original verbal shock tactics? A Behanding in Spokane is what you get, and, in the case of this critic, eyes rolled all the way into the back of my fucking head.

Irish playwright Martin McDonagh followed his acclaimed Aran Islands Trilogy with a foray into Hollywood. He wrote the the screenplay for In Bruges, one of my favorite films of 2008. But, back on Broadway for the first time in four years, he has taken a major misstep with A Behanding in Spokane, his first work set in America. And what did the celebrated playwright pick up in the New World? A bad case of the affliction that saddles too many writers these days: actue Tarantino-itis.

Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy Tarantino’s writing and directing, but his example has begat so many wannabees who believe that Attitude is all you need for success.

Christopher Walken stars as the behanded Carmichael (affected much?), a man who lost his left hand forty-seven years ago to a gang of cruel hillbillies in a railroad yard. He has been seeking his missing digits ever since, and meets with a pair who claim to have in their possession that long lost hand. If you’re eyes aren’t rolling already I can’t help you. In Bruges worked so well because despite the seeming leading with what appear to be the standard-issue assassins-on-the-run type, there’s a lot of heart and emotion behind the characters’ motives. It was more than just a po-mo gangster black comedy: it was a moving character study. But Walken plays Christopher Walken, and the self-consciousness of the writing is met by Walken’s own self-consciousness – his delivery is forced, his timing mannered, as if instead of putting his signature voice and timing into a well-drawn character, he’s competing with the writer’s own notion of what a Christopher Walken character ought to be like. Sam Rockwell does somewhat better as the hotel clerk/receptionist; he seems to have walked off the set of a particularly violent episode of the Andy Griffith Show, and that’s as good as angle as any to take with this material, but the material really favors for no one – least of all the would-be hand dealing couple, an African American (Toby, played by Anthony Mackie, who gets some laughs mostly at his expense) and a blonde (Marilyn, natch, played by Zoe Kazan) who are subject to nearly all of the aforementioned ironic epithets.

Admittedly I saw the play in previews, but barely a week before it opens in earnest, I can’t see the producers coming in to make any major changes. And why should they – the audience I saw it with, despite skewing heavily to the Golden Girl set, laughed at all the right places. There’s no accounting for taste, but if you do like A Behanding in Spokane, maybe we shouldn’t get the early-bird special together.
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