Martin McDonagh’s “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” is, by leagues, the noisiest, bloodiest and most unrelentingly cruel play on any New York stage within memory. And it’s a comedy.
McDonagh’s plays have always had grotesque aspects, ranging from the axe-wielding daughter of “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” to the violent siblings of “The Lonesome West” and the bizarre burials of “A Skull in Connemara.”
But “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” playing at the Atlantic Theater company on West 20th Street, where “Beauty Queen” faced its first pre-Broadway audiences, marks the first occasion on which the British-born, Irish-derived dramatist, as though inspired by director Quentin Tarantino at his wildest, has plunged headlong into the kind of total grossout that has always been the specialty of Paris’ long entrenched house of horror, the Grand Guignol.
It seems safe to say that audiences at the Atlantic, where the play will run through April 9, will unfailingly include individuals sticking their fingers in their ears while others avert their eyes entirely from the gore and dismemberment going on on the stage.
Spectators settling into their seats facing the curtainless proscenium will find themselves looking at Scott Pask’s set, which, with its battered chairs, scarred table and cluttered kitchen counter, would at first appear capable of accommodating anything McDonagh has ever written, from “Beauty Queen” to “Lonesome West” and back again.
When the show’s first two characters, Davey (Domhnall Gleeson) and Donny (Peter Garety), appear, fussing over the inert corpse of a nearly headless black cat, whose brains and blood are leaking out on the cottage’s kitchen table, the audience is given some slight idea of what the playwright has in store for them. That’s where the groaning begins, and it hardly lets up for a bit over two hours.
The cat dubbed Wee Thomas, is the beloved property of Donny’s son, Padraic (David Wilmot), who is away at the moment but is expected back only too soon. Donny and the bicycle-riding Davey,, whose vehicle may have been responsible for the animal’s demise, cook up a plot to keep Padraic from learning of his pet’s passing or at least to let him discover the truth in easily digested stages.
The scene shifts to some unspecified locale, where an enforcer who will turn out to be the cat-loving Padraic is interrogating a suspect Jeff Binder, two of hose toenails have been extracted and who is, during the questing, hanging by his ankles from a rig involving ropes and pulleys. Binder richly deserves hazard pay.
The play is set in 1993 on the island of Inishmore, off County Galway, at a moment in time in which elements of the INLA the Irish National Liberation Army, were staging violent acts which threatened to throw a monkey wrench into the works of the ongoing attempts to forge a peace in Ireland.
The plan to deceive Padraic involves using black shoe polish to alter the color of an orange tabby named Sir Roger in order to convince the violence-prone rebel, who describes wee Thomas as his “closest friend,” into believing that his animal companion is alive and well.
McDonagh’s cast of eight is entirely male, except for the gun-toting 16-year-old Mairead, who is, in the view of the others, either a boy wearing lipstick or a flat-chested girl.
The latter option turns out to be the reality when Mairead, who has become adroit at shooting out the eyes of cows all over the island, embarks on an odd, passionate affair with Padraic.
Kerry Condon, as Mairead, is playing a role oddly similar to Girleen, the part she played in McDonagh’s “The Lonesome West” at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool.
Three of the cast members, Condon, Gleeson and Wilmot, the son of actor and director Ronan Wilmot, have been imported from the original production of “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” a London’s Royal Shakespeare Company, where, as here it was directed by the American Wilson Milam.
McDonagh, whose plays generally make their points fairly quickly and reasonably efficiently, seems to have been trapped in his own clutter in “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” at least in the lengthy and discursive first act, when his dramaturgy seems to be wandering at will all over the map of Inishmore.
In the play’s brisk second act, a trio of black-garbed, gun-toting assassins, Christy (Andrew Connolly), Joey ( Dashiell Eaves) and Brendan (Brish D’Arcy James), urns up with the intention of eliminating Padraic .
At about the point of the killer’s explosive arrival on the scene, “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” reaches a kind of boiling point, and begins to work more satisfyingly than had previously been the case.
Either that, or, just as reasonably, the onset of the lethal troika marks the moment at which the audience, at least most of it, begins to surrender to McDonagh’s somewhat ridiculous plotting and thinking.
Briefly it even seems likely that the ushers at the Atlantic Theater Company may be packing rifles and revolvers, since, after all, everybody else is.
The final scene of “the Lieutenant of Inishmore” is so thoroughly drenched in blood, with severed heads, hands and other body parts littering the stage, that some feint-hearted audiences will very probably reject it entirely.
Others will go with the flow, as though the prolific McDonagh’s intention may have been to see what he could get away with, how far he could go in the direction of being entirely outrageous, which is very probably what he had in mind.
Some of Martin McDonagh’s past plays most particularly “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” could be said to have been taken at least a bit too seriously, and been regarded as serious drama, when in fact they really belonged to the realm of cartoons, or, more accurately, in the category of the currently voguish “graphic novel.”
That’s not likely to be the case with “The Lieutenant of inshore,” which is very likely to be perceived as he bizarre bloodbath it, in truth, is.
When Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company produced the play, a good number of audiences were, by report, seriously upset, while other elements, some critics included, considered it among the theatrical season’s truly valid offerings.
It’s unlikely that Martin McDonagh’s “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” will be received in its current American production at either extreme end of the scale. There are, to be sure, abundant, albeit rather ugly laughs, and Milam’s production earns them and gets them.