When the girl goes missing, we have only ourselves to blame. Look, we walked into that theater knowing full well the sort of ultraviolent hijinks playwright Martin McDonagh likes to get up to. The moment that innocent 15-year-old came down the stairs, the only girl in Hangmen’s smoky, paneled, ’60s-era pub, we knew we were watching the sacrificial lamb tottering onto the stage. We know because we like McDonagh’s if-it-bleeds-it-leads dramaturgy. We’ve always laughed when he turns his astonishing gift for dialogue to cruelty — as he inevitably does.
McDonagh’s 2015 thriller-comedy Hangmen, now transferred to the Atlantic Theater from London’s West End, takes most of its pleasures in needling us for those expectations. McDonagh’s cynical Irish plays (The Beauty Queen of Leenane, among others) prepare us for his rudeness-as-punchline tactics, while a little movie called Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri readies us for the vague gesture at sociopolitical critique. The play doesn’t have quite the same black magic it had back home — Hangmen is scaled to be a whale-versus-squid Battle of the Bad Men, and the whale has been recast with a pussycat. But McDonagh’s impressive orchestration of voices and his confident, suspenseful structure are still there. It’s a solid night out for those who enjoy a bit of crawling dread alongside their jokes.
The set-up is simple. On the day in 1964 that Parliament finally abolishes capital punishment, the Crown’s last hangman, Harry Wade (Mark Addy), holds court in his Northern English pub. Pulling pints and giving an ill-advised interview (“He’s run away with himself!” tuts his wife), Harry keeps asserting himself as the local big cheese. He puts down his own customers, ignores his wife, Alice (Sally Rogers), insults his teenage daughter, Shirley (Gaby French), and generally gives the impression of a man who really loved his other, deadlier job. McDonagh based this character on reality — both this Harry and the original Last Hangman claim to have “never lost a night’s sleep” over their work. But then a stranger walks into the bar. Mooney (Johnny Flynn) isn’t right: He has a shaggy Beatles haircut; exhibits interest in “our Shirley”; is prone to terrifying outbursts; and seems to know a bit too much about the last man Wade hanged. Wade’s old assistant, Syd (Reece Shearsmith), shows up to voice dire warnings, but Mooney operates full and eerie and unopposed, until the play glides into sudden, violent farce.
This is the same production — director, design, some of the actors — that played in the West End. The shift to the small Atlantic Theater isn’t altogether comfortable. There’s a distinct sense that Anna Fleischle’s beautiful set has been crammed too tightly into the space, and some of the performances still taste of the bigger venue. The director, Matthew Dunster, is directing the broader characters (like poor, telegraphing Syd) to a balcony that doesn’t exist, and his farce-choreography sometimes flattens out to a hieroglyphic line.
The main difference, though, is Harry. Addy — an officious marmot-type with burnished pink cheeks — takes over from David Morrissey, who looked like a Victorian cartoon of an ideal British soldier. Addy bounces and bustles; Morrissey loomed. On Morrissey, Harry’s mustache and bowtie were the affectations of a thug; his vanity was the preening of a potential brownshirt. When you looked at him, you knew banal old Harry would have been just the sort to sign up as village Grüppenführer. Addy, though, plays Harry as a mere dyspeptic, and the bowtie makes Addy look like one of the pub’s weak-willed punters rather than the king of the tap. (McDonagh likes to write ridiculous villains, but they’re still intended to pose a threat.)
This leaves Mooney in too-clear command of the field. He’s a marvelous construction: a drawling man-boy with a skinny tie and the evil smoke of ’60s licentiousness clinging to his shoulders. He’s vile and funny and eldritch. He’s so weird, in fact, that he stops behaving like a person at all in the play’s final moments. We’re meant to see the men together so we can compare the various types of masculine violence — the kind that belongs and the kind that rebels. Flynn’s mesmerizing in the part, but without Morrissey to counter him, the play loses its saw-blade effect.
McDonagh writes tar-hearted folktales. His settings are realistic (Bruges, Britain in the ’60s, Leenane), but underneath he’s another Aesop. The weird grotesqueries of his characters don’t seem so strange when you assume they’re all scorpions and foxes, stinging and biting and making pithy comments at each other as they mutually destruct. It’s why his best play — one of the best plays — is The Pillowman, in which real-life horror and gruesome fairytales slipper-slide into each other. McDonagh’s great at drawing monsters; he’s also a deft hand at fools. His occasional sin is glibness, which becomes more or less venial depending on how much you believe he’s describing real human suffering. (His wrongheaded redemption-ending to Three Billboards is an example of it that sin in its mortal form.) Hangmen toes right up to the line on “glib,” perhaps because it’s self-consciously about something — namely, capital punishment — and yet doesn’t wind up saying much about it. But we don’t go to a McDonagh play to feel deeply about the world, or people, or life. We go for a little brush of poison on our lips, because it makes other things taste so sweet by comparison.