“I know death hath ten thousand several doors,” says the Duchess of Malfi, “for men to take their exits.”
For 2,400 years, the theater has thrown those doors wide open, providing macabre deaths to delight audiences. In his classic 1614 play The Duchess of Malfi, for example, John Webster contrives to kill off every major character—and several minor ones—via rope, dagger, pistol, and an ingeniously poisoned prayer book. Webster also infects one character with lycanthropy and sets him gnawing on the bodies of the recently interred. Rest in peace? Not so much.
Of contemporary playwrights, Martin McDonagh has racked up perhaps the heftiest and most consistent body count, committing copious murders and a few feline assassinations. But in his latest play, a revenge comedy titled A Behanding in Spokane, he allows his characters to escape more or less unharmed. What kind of an exit is that?
Webster competes with John Ford for the honor of the 17th-century’s grisliest playwright. In The Duchess of Malfi, the titular widow secretly weds her steward and has several children by him, much to the distress of her brothers. On a set swathed in tatty pink brocade, Red Bull Theater’s artistic director Jesse Berger delivers a typically slick and lucid production. Berger and his strong cast (Matthew Rauch and Gareth Saxe are the stand-outs) excel at rendering the recherché text accessible. Brisk choreography and an imposing supply of blood packs ensure that the stage action never flags.
Yet Berger fails to make audiences care much about his characters. In jaundiced, antiheroic works like The Revenger’s Tragedy and Women Beware Women, this isn’t such a bother. But here, as in Red Bull’s Edward II, the play suffers because the central relationship doesn’t convince. Berger never elucidates the genuine affection between the Duchess (Christina Rouner) and her steward, Antonio (Matthew Greer), so one doesn’t particularly mind when they and their kiddies are offed. Indeed, late in the play, when a henchman splatters a baby’s brains against a wall, I found myself among those giggling.
Laughter also greets great swathes of A Behanding in Spokane, some provoked by the script, some invited by Christopher Walken’s ridiculous, rather brilliant performance. His failed attempts at a regional accent and peculiar intonations only seem to enhance his barmy charm. With long hair swept back from his cadaverous face, Walken plays Carmichael, a man who has spent his life searching for his left hand, which a band of hillbillies removed decades ago. In a rundown hotel room, he terrorizes a pair of incompetent con artists (Anthony Mackie and Zoe Kazan) and a dim-witted receptionist (Sam Rockwell).
This is McDonagh’s first play set in America and his second, after The Pillowman, not located in his native Ireland. He takes to certain of our idioms (“a coon’s age,” “y’know,” “motherfucker”), but A Behanding lacks the lyricism of his earlier works. It also lacks their substance. That no one dies is not the only reason this amusing, harmless piece proves less affecting than any of his previous works. Instead of making the door to this hotel room one of the “ten thousand several,” McDonagh has merely hung a metaphorical “Do Not Disturb” sign on it.