SOLID BUT ULTIMATELY forgettable playwrights need only create a few passable works to furnish us with a sense of who they are and why they write.
What distinguishes workmanlike scribes from great dramatists is that for the latter it takes many plays—a writing lifetime—for us to grasp their complete voice and vision.
The Irish playwright Martin McDonagh is one figure on the road to transcending the boxes into which we may too easily classify his work. In The Pillowman and The Lieutenant of Inishmore, both of which ran on Broadway, he served up a taste for blood-splattering savagery that proved cauterizing in an era in which little else fazed us.Were it not for a different kind of play like The Cripple of Inishmaan—McDonagh’s 1997 work currently being co-produced Off-Broadway by the Atlantic Theatre Company and Ireland’s Druid Theatre Company— we might pigeonhole him as one for whom gruesomeness is the holy grail. Like yet another McDonagh play—the Tony-winning The Beauty Queen of Leenane—Inishmaan allows us to consider him in multiple dimensions.
Here, McDonagh situates physical and emotional pain inside his central character, Billy, who Aaron Monaghan is portraying in one of those performances that acting students should catch at all costs. Billy is lame and deformed—an unfortunate fate in 1934 in the tiny, boring Irish town in which the play is set—but he doesn’t lack ambition, cunning or libido. Since birth, it seems, he’s been stuck inside the grim, gray grocery store run by adoptive aunts Kate and Eileen, played by Marie Mullen and Dearbhla Molloy, respectively, as old maids who’d shield Billy from the world rather than let him experience it. But experience it he must, so when Billy discovers that a documentary film crew is visiting nearby, he engages in an elaborate deception of those who ostensibly love him in order to try out for a role.To everyone’s astonishment, he’s successful (the play was inspired by the 1934 film Man of Aran); but that is not, in fact, the play’s point. Rather, it’s what occurs upon Billy’s return. Despite an Act II scene of cruel violence, director Garry Hynes’ staging is utterly masterful.
McDonagh’s gift with this play is to condemn the denizens of a town steeped in its provincialism while proudly parading everyone’s eccentricities. Local gossip Johnny- PateenMike is an abhorrent and blithering sleaze, but David Pearse plays him to sneering, sniveling heights. Helen, the local tomboy who Billy pines for, is delineated by Kerry Condon with abundant testosterone—watch for the scene with the eggs and prepare to squirm. Helen’s brother Bartley—casual dimwit, callow youth—is the keen consequence of Laurence Kinlan’s gentle character choices.
Andrew Connolly limns Babbybobby, a brooding boatman and widower who figures deeply, but unwittingly, into Billy’s scheme, with melancholy and menace. JohnnyPateen- Mike’s 90-year-old alcoholic mother, Mammy O’Dougal, is a dizzy brew offered by Patricia O’Connell. And John C.Vennema essays impervious Dr. McSharry with elegance.
But the star is McDonagh, who demonstrates with this 11-year-old play that human innards can serve as a metaphor, that he need not hurl chunks of literal gore into everything he writes. It’s not that he’s given up crafting drama from the injury man may inflict upon himself, but that we’re learning what he believes about the power of love, even if it’s contorted and backhanded. Inishmaan’s characters may not define love as we might, of course, but its there—under all the feckin’ cursing and, at the end, a tincture of Irish luck.
> The Cripple of Inishmaan
Through Mar. 1. Atlantic Theatre Company, 336 W. 20th St. (betw. 8th & 9th Aves.), 212-414-1377; times vary, $65.