- Chief New York Theatre Critic
- Outer Critics Circle
“The best laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft a-gley.” – “To A Mouse” by Robert Burns
Despite his claim to be “quite content to keep [his] own counsel, as [he] sees fit, and leave the jibber-jabber to the riff-raff, the riff-raff,” former hangman Harry Wade (played with a menacing panache by Mark Addy) seems quite content to “tell all” to anyone who asks his opinion about almost anything, including his spin on his feelings about the abolition of hanging in England in the mid-1960s. Harry has been a “servant of the Crown in the capacity of hangman” for twenty-five years and currently, with his wife Alice (played with a repressed steely strength by Sally Rogers) runs a pub in Oldham, England where they live with their teenage daughter Shirley (played with a playful and whiny wisdom by Gaby French).
Somewhere between a bedroom farce and film noire, Martin McDonagh’s “Hangmen,” currently running at Atlantic Theatre Company, spins an intriguing tale about “truth” and “consequences.” The play begins with a jaw-dropping scene set in a prison cell in 1963. Hangman Harry Wade and his sidekick Syd Armfield (played with a pandering exterior that camouflages a sinister interior by Reece Shearsmith) arrive with guards to escort convicted prisoner James Hennessy (played with a cloying innocence by Giles Geary) off to the gallows. Harry, not much concerned about guilt or innocence, is focused on one thing: hanging Hennessy. Wade is less concerned about justice than he is about the convict’s mention of the hangman’s nemesis Albert Pierrepoint (played with regal superiority by Maxwell Caulfield).
In the second scene, the action shifts to Harry’s bar where he holds forth with his three regulars, a local journalist Clegg (Owen Campbell), and a plainclothes policeman Inspector Fry (David Lansbury). The regulars include Bill (Richard Hollis), Charlie (Billy Carter), and the “touch deaf” Arthur (the curmudgeonly John Horton). Think the Three Stooges meet the Keystone Cops and the tone of the setting becomes clear. Clegg has arrived from Manchester to interview Harry about the abolishing of hanging. All this bantering sets the stage for the arrival of “the young stranger” Mooney (played with demonic delight by Johnny Flynn) and the Martin McDonagh bumpy tide begins in earnest.
Mooney’s arrival sets in motion a myriad of conflicts tailormade for the playwright’s fascinating characters: each of these conflicts drives a plot filled with moral ambiguity and gumshoe grit worthy of a Dashiell Hammett novel. After a salacious conversation with Shirley, Mooney convinces her to go to the beach with him. In a meeting with Syd, Mooney claims he has locked Shirley “in a garage in Formby” and he learns Syd has inadvertently (?) implicated Mooney in the murder blamed on the now deceased Hennessey. This tragicomic turn of events wobbles deliciously between slapstick and pathos and keeps the audience on edge.
Shirley’s absence and Syd’s implication lead to another hanging: who’s in the noose, where he is hanged, how, when, and where the hanging takes place is the brilliant game playwright McDonagh plays with the audience’s mind (and heart). Just when it seems clear who Mooney is and whether he kidnapped and harmed Shirley, Albert Pierrepoint shows up at Harry’s pub to “discuss” the derogatory comments Harry made to the reporter. But something is behind the curtain that challenges the moral fiber of the characters and the moral compass of a nation.
Under Matthew Dunster’s keen direction, the members of the cast uniformly deliver stunningly authentic performances that honor Martin McDonagh’s rich, dark approach to disturbingly significant themes, many of which are playing out currently on the national and global stages.
The cast of “Hangmen” features Mark Addy, Owen Campbell, Billy Carter, Maxwell Caulfield, Johnny Flynn, Gaby French, Gilles Geary, Richard Hollis, John Horton, David Lansbury, Sally Rogers, and Reece Shearsmith.
“Hangmen” features scenic and costume design by Anna Fleischle, lighting design by Joshua Carr, sound design by Ian Dickinson for Autograph, dialects by Stephen Gabis, fight choreography by J. David Brimmer, UK casting by Amy Ball, CDG, and US casting by Telsey+Company; Adam Caldwell, CSA; Will Cantler, CSA; Karyn Casl, CSA. Production photos by Ahron R. Foster.
“Hangman” runs for a limited engagement through Sunday, March 4th, 2018 Off-Broadway at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater (336 West 20th Street). For more information, including performance schedule and to purchase tickets, please visit https://atlantictheater.org/. Running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission.
Photo: Johnny Flynn and Sally Rogers in “Hangmen.” Credit: Ahron R. Foster.