The Cripple of Inishmaan, currently being revived at the Atlantic Theater, is one of the plays by which Martin McDonagh became well known. (The others are The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, and The Lonesome West.) All written in a short period of time, they’re the plays of an intelligent young man out to make a name for himself, displaying all the good and bad qualities that situation implies. With their zestful storytelling and sardonic humor comes an ingenuity that sometimes turns glibly show-offy and manipulative. With their arrestingly dark vision comes a kind of smirking satisfaction in glutting the audience’s appetite for unpleasantness or explicit violence.
And, hand in hand with the genuine love McDonagh displays for the stark, quirky, distant life of Ireland’s craggy, sparsely populated West goes a bothersome hint of condescension: In their liltingly repetitive speech, his characters often seem a little dimwitted, slow to absorb information, relentlessly niggling over its details, maniacally misguided in the ways they act upon it. The sharp common sense and dogged faith in principle that traditionally infuse rural life barely exist in McDonagh’s Ireland; his is the viewpoint of the city slicker, snickering with glee while his country cousins behave like vicious idiots.
Misery, confusion, and despair tend to result from every encounter these folk have with the complex world outside; their more frequent encounters with each other produce mainly endlessly rehashed scandals and steadily growing piles of stored-up resentment. With the showy alacrity of a Hollywood story conference, McDonagh inflates these accumulations, constantly tossing in additional motives, alternative backstories, and extra surprise endings until the stolid rural figures and their rock-hard world seem as flimsy as crepe paper. This precipitately lowers the extent to which one can care about them: The self-conscious show of flimsiness makes this rugged world seem phony; the insistence on that world’s grimness makes the narrative flim-flam annoying instead of amusing.
Both the grim and the showy, however, appeal to theater people, who tend to accept the first as meaningful and the second as imaginative. McDonagh’s plays regularly attract artists of great talent, often with powerful results. Even the Public Theater’s 1998 misfire with The Cripple of Inishmaan was better than it’s been painted: The gifted folk involved simply didn’t generate enough subtlety and atmospheric sense to conceal the play’s shortcomings, so that it fell flat on its own merits rather than being buoyed up by theirs. The new production, featuring a cast of Irish and Irish-American actors directed by Garry Hynes, of Galway’s Druid Theatre, does better: It manages to stave off your suspicions for long periods of time.
The bumpy storyline, though, keeps those suspicions sprouting. In a drab general store on the isle of Inishmaan, two maiden ladies (Dearbhla Molloy and Marie Mullen) have raised a physically impaired boy whom the islanders all call Cripple Billy (Aaron Monaghan). Malformed at birth, he was rescued in infancy when his parents drowned in a mysterious fishing-boat accident, about which we get, in the course of the play, at least four explanations: the story Billy’s been told about his salvation; the rumors he’s heard; the story behind the rumors, which he finally learns; and a “real” story, lying behind that one, which he must never be told—and which, because of something those who know this last story don’t realize, he will probably not live to learn. What they don’t know is itself the bottom layer of another series of steadily unpacked explanations.
These shaky heaps of increasingly suspect backstories support two equally piled-up narratives of Cripple Billy’s ongoing adventures, one concerning his unrequited passion for a violently hostile local girl, Helen (Kerry Condon), and the other focusing on his passion for the movies. It’s 1934, and the famous documentary-maker Robert Flaherty is in the area shooting Man of Aran. Through chicanery, Billy obtains a ride, along with Helen and her brother, to nearby Inishmore, where the film crew is at work. In the most far-fetched of McDonagh’s many credibility-stretching twists, somebody planning a feature film about a crippled boy invites Billy to Hollywood to test for the role. Nothing comes of this—coincidences in a McDonagh play rarely bring happiness—and after some agony in L.A., Billy returns to Inishmaan to face reality. The last two scenes are teasingly written to toy with that reality: The L.A. agony we see may be merely Billy’s screen test; the long scene of his return, with its flip-flop reversals and heaped-up alternate explanations, may just be a dream, though it’s hard to tell whose.
Billy’s sojourn in L.A. is hard to imagine in any case: If anyone on Flaherty’s crew had seriously contemplated casting an untrained, disabled Irishman, London studios were available for screen tests. And Flaherty’s quasi-anthropological ventures were the least likely to have such a person along: Hollywood basically viewed him as an uncommercial weirdo. “World-famous and world-loved,” wrote his biographer, Richard Griffiths, “his standing in his own profession was nil.” Even the characters’ rush to see the filming seems improbable: Flaherty’s shoots notoriously dragged on; he spent nearly two years making Man of Aran. The Inishmaaners could have dropped by anytime to watch their island neighbors acting out the lives of fisherfolk in their grandparents’ era. (The “reality” of Flaherty’s works has been much debated.)
Hynes’s cast fights hard for the real, but the showbiz temptations built into McDonagh’s script constantly lure them away. Mullen and Molloy resist stringently, as does Andrew Connolly, playing the sullen boatman who takes Billy to Inishmore. Monaghan and Condon make a wonderfully sharp-edged pair of anti-lovers, though the handsome, magnetic Monaghan needs all his technical resources to make us imagine him as a bookish introvert who’s been looked down upon since childhood. Only David Pearse, stuck with the burdensome role of the town gossip, slides too readily into the traps McDonagh’s writing lays for actors. But no matter how truthfully The Cripple of Inishmaan is played, it’s hard to see what truth, if any, its writing contains.