A Behanding in Spokane at GableStage: Violence is all that matters

When playwright Martin McDonagh set pen to paper for the dirty-mouthed comedy A Behanding in Spokane, he likely began with a character. That character was an old, hard man — a man from whom something had been taken and who meant to rectify the injustice. He was a man whose woundedness had caused many more wounds far more dire than his own. He was blind to the wrongs committed in his quest for vengeance, and confronted with the carnage he had wrought, he would shrug and growl, "Something was taken from me. I want it back. Is that so fucking hard to understand?"

What was taken from him was his hand (hence the play's title). As a youth, he was accosted by a gang of yahoos outside Spokane, Washington. He was beaten, and his wrist was held to a railroad track as a freight train approached. The brutes waved goodbye to him using his severed appendage — "Can you imagine?" he cries — and sold it to the highest bidder, who sold it to someone else, who sold it to someone else. For nearly a half-century, this man has sought the people who possessed his hand, however briefly, and visited justice upon them. At last, his quest has brought him to this room, where two young ne'er-do-wells have promised to deliver the hand for $500.

A Behanding in Spokane is the first play McDonagh has elected to set in America (his usual setting is Ireland), which makes me wonder, perhaps fancifully, if A Behanding might be about 9/11 and its aftermath. There is a moment in the play when the stage is covered in severed body parts; it looks like a bomb went off in a marketplace. If Carmichael, the behanded vigilante (played by Dennis Creaghan), were a more learned man, perhaps he would call the carnage "collateral damage." But he is not a politician, and he is uninterested in spin. Carmichael doesn't come up with a fancy name for the innocents mangled in his mad quest for justice. To him, they simply don't matter.

Creaghan is an actor whose great strength lies in the rhythms of his speech. With a sigh or a pause, he can open great, wide windows into a character's interior life. When he plays the generally opaque Carmichael, those rare windows open onto a void. No one knows exactly why he wants his hand back; even to himself, he is unable to define what finding it might mean. In moments when Carmichael's unthinking unknowingness surfaces, the swirling, inchoate rage living in his mind seems to roar like a family of bees. With a face full of slack, dumb misery, he hollers, "I want it back!" in a voice that is all indignation and self-pity as he prepares to murder a roomful of people.

A Behanding appears to exist solely as a life-support system for Carmichael. The other characters could be traded in or out of other plays; only Carmichael needs to be here. At least in the text, Mervyn the bellhop (Erik Fabregat), Toby the pot dealer (Marckenson Charles), and Marilyn, Toby's stone-stupid girlfriend (Jackie Rivera), are sketches at best — their histories and motivations either nebulous or outlandish. Director Joseph Adler treats them better than McDonagh does, turning these rough bits of clay into a vibrant rogue's gallery devoted to the picturing of human ambition at varying stages of decay. Mervyn desperately wants something exciting or beautiful in his life, but his moral spirit is dying of inertia. "I always hoped they'd have one of those school massacres in my high school," he says, and Fabregat makes the line almost sweet; his friendly eyes grow wistful, and a shy little smile kisses his lips. "Didn't you?"

Toby the pot dealer has a fair number of dumb lines, but Charles makes him the smartest person in the room. Toby is there to scam Carmichael, but Charles seems to decide, moment by moment, that his character would rather learn from Carmichael's mystery, if he can somehow do so and survive. Survival is nearly all that interests Toby's girlfriend, Marilyn. When a man who has just poured kerosene over her head asks if he can borrow a match, she digs gamely through her pockets before realizing her error. Then her eyes snap into focus, and her face assumes a hyperalert poise — her mouth ready to smile or break into cries as soon as she figures out what the moment demands. As played by Rivera, Marilyn is a screen across which the expectations of the other characters play; her personhood disappears into nothingness in the hopes that life, in all of its unpredictable badness, won't find her there.

A Behanding plays out entirely in a grubby hotel room in "a small town in America" (set design by Lyle Baskin, who accentuates the seediness by breaking a few slats off the closet door), but even that narrow view enables us to imagine the world beyond the walls. It's a world where killers don't worry about people overhearing gunshots, where even the presence of police lights beneath a fire escape doesn't inspire urgency in a criminal's cleaning up of severed limbs. Everything about the world's inhabitants is vaguely off-kilter — manic and depressive at the same time, calling forth the farcical from the tragic and fashioning pathos from inanity. Murder is funny, but a bellhop's story about a gibbon in a zoo elicits a tear. There is profound hilarity in A Behanding, even as it conjures a deep sense of waste. An intimation near play's end suggests that Carmichael's bloody quest across the "filth lots and flea alleys of this sad, decaying nation" was for naught. Contemplating that possibility while staring down at his stump, Carmichael is neither remorseful nor joyous. For him, and for us, revelation changes nothing; it was the violence that mattered all along and which will continue to sustain him. He has no exit strategy.

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Brandon K. Thorp