‘Hangmen’ is Broadway’s best new play

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You’re absolutely wracked with guilt over “Hangmen” – for laughing so hard at the many inappropriate jokes. A rude sight gag near the end had me standing up practically dry.

That relentless nastiness is what makes Martin McDonagh’s murderous satire the best new Broadway play by a green mile.

theater review

Two and a half hours, with an intermission. At the Golden Theater, 252 West 45th Street.

The British comedy, which opened at the Golden Theater on Thursday night, is a heap of gossip and taboos – albeit with a sophisticated dish on the legal system – that will have wimps grabbing their pearls for life. The rest of us can’t help but laugh at the macabre madness.

Take the unusual main characters: an executioner and a possibly murderer.

The show is set in 1965 England, just when hanging (their preferred method of capital punishment) was banned. A year after the final offense, Harry (David Threlfall) – a famous executioner – now owns a pub up north and is a local celebrity for dumb old drunks. They flock to see the man, who drily reckons he oversaw 233 murders, as if he were Lady Gaga at Joanne’s Trattoria.

Said a doting old fool: “I don’t even like pints here, but they have a hangman.”

Drunks flock to the local pub to see the executioner (David Threlfall, left) in the flesh.
Joan Marcus

This rude, possibly immoral premise wakes you up. If an American student wrote a piece like this about the death penalty at an Ivy League school, they would likely be expelled and then banned from Twitter. But McDonagh is the Flying Wallendas of playwrights: he’s addicted to risk, irresistibly confident and, more often than not, victoriously reaches the end of an impossibly high tightrope.

His “Hanged Man” takes place on a strange birthday for Harry. A year earlier he executed a man who had been convicted of murdering a young woman, but evidence was scanty and the prisoner maintained his innocence until his death.

On this inauspicious day, a lanky guy from London named Mooney (Allen) walks into the pub, goes to the bar, and has a spooky chat with Harry’s 15-year-old daughter Shirley (Gaby French). Mooney is instantly suspicious but, to McDonagh and Allen’s credit, we kinda like him despite our apprehensions.

Simultaneously, we wonder who this mysterious man is, did the dead prisoner do what he is accused of and, much later, if a character we have just met is alive or dead.

Ian Dickinson's surprising set is Broadway's best of the year.
Ian Dickinson’s surprising set is Broadway’s best of the year.
Joan Marcus

As twisted as McDonagh’s screenplay is Ian Dickinson’s phenomenal set – the best this year of any show, play or musical – it’s a veritable Russian doll of scenic surprises.

Playing the barflys is a star set. While Allen I’m sure wants to escape the memory of “Game of Thrones”, he brilliantly brings the same whiny quality of Theon Greyjoy to Mooney, but tackles a cosmopolitan swagger – a Patrick Bateman with a accent. Threlfall, on the other hand, is the type of big-personality actor a cartoonist couldn’t imagine. He is strong and hysterical.

Tracie Bennett, as Harry’s beleaguered wife, could have been transported from ‘Fawlty Towers’ with her 60s persona and comedic chops, and French handles the tough job of playing a teenager in peril with the perfect dose of innocence.

McDonagh fans will be delighted. The playwright gives his tormentor and crackpot pervert the same likable and funny treatment he gave a Northern Irish terrorist in the equally terrific ‘The Lieutenant of Inishmore’. In fact, it’s his finest piece since that one, 16 years ago.

His “executioners” kill.

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