From his breakthrough play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, through his current Oscar-nominated film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Martin McDonagh has never shied away from examining the extremes of human behavior, whether unbelievably quirky, unbearably arrogant or extremely self-destructive.
The fact that he does so again in Hangmen, which has arrived at the Atlantic Theater Company from the West End in Matthew Dunster’s mostly intact and mostly superb production, is cause for rejoicing from the playwright’s many fans. Newcomers beware, though. Like some of McDonagh’s other plays, it’s a bit of slow burn – with a huge payoff in Act II, where McDonagh’s gifts for melding black comedy, tragedy and surprise come together with almost peerless skill.
After a brief but important prologue set in 1963, the work is set primarily in 1965 in a pub in Northern England (expertly designed by Anna Fleischle) owned by the self-aggrandizing, short-tempered Harry Wade (a stupendous Mark Addy), who – until that day – had been one of the last two hangmen (executioners) still working in England.
Now relegated to pouring pints alongside his long-suffering wife Alice (an excellent Sally Rogers) and dealing with the quicksilver moods of his shy teenage daughter Shirley (the pitch-perfect Gaby French), Harry spends his first day off the job entertaining his cronies (memorably played by Billy Carter, Richard Hollis, John Horton and David Lansbury) and being subtly cajoled into giving an ill-advised newspaper interview to an intrepid young reporter (Owen Campbell).
But what will ultimately make this day most memorable is the sudden arrival of Mooney (English actor Johnny Flynn in a truly sensational U.S. stage debut), a handsome, young and “vaguely menacing” fellow from the southern part of the U.K. who does little to ingratiate himself with the locals, even as he claims to want to rent a room above Harry’s pub. Are his motives suspect or innocent? Is he somehow connected to the murders of two young women (the first of which is the subject of the play’s terrifying yet hilarious prologue)? Does he have sinister plans for Shirley? McDonagh teases us with these questions throughout the rest of the play, and while you think you might have the answers, you might not. One of the truest testaments to McDonagh’s prowess is his awareness that people don’t always act in conventionally explicable ways.
While a well-conceived and brilliantly executed plot is one of Hangmen’s many virtues, the greatest pleasure comes from its more incidental moments, as when – in response to a comment made by Harry to the reporter – his longtime rival Arthur Pierpont (a welcome Maxwell Caulfield) forces everyone in the bar to smell his hair, or the development of a long-running gag about Harry’s sheepish ex-assistant Sid (an excellent Reece Shearsmith) and his supposed fascination with male genitalia.
Dunster also deserves great credit for creating such a seamless ensemble, while also giving Addy and Flynn the necessary room to dominate their scenes. (By the way, if anyone wants to mount a revival of Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr. Sloane with Flynn, please let me know). There are really no false notes here to note. As usual, McDonagh sets the theatrical bar high.