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Theater review by Adam Feldman
“Even when I try to be funny, I come across more as menacing,” says a fellow named Mooney (Johnny Flynn) in Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen, a play that wants to be both. It is 1965, and with his longish blond hair, angelic face, langorous London accent and air of fashionable dissolution, the young man cuts an odd figure at the working-class Northern English pub run by a vain gasbag and former hangman named Harry Wade (the affable Mark Addy) and his wife, Alice (Sally Rogers). Mooney is intent on making trouble—first by swanning among the bar’s doltish regulars, then by putting the moves on Wade’s shy teenage daughter, Shirley (Gaby French)—and he cultivates his image carefully. (When someone refers to him as creepy, he peevishly corrects him: “Menacing, not creepy.”) He’s like a character from a play by Harold Pinter, but not exactly; he’s more like someone who has seen a Pinter play and thought it seemed cool.
A similar spirit of theatrical self-consciousness pervades McDonagh’s play, his first since 2010. Fans of the Irish-English auteur will be reminded of the qualities that make his work pop. Nasty humor twines with sadism: In the play’s first scene, a man is hanged in prison while desperately protesting his innocence, as his executioners—led by Wade and his stammering aide, Syd (Reece Shearsmith)—bicker like “nincompoops.” The punchy dialogue is tinged with local color, and performed by a fine cast of 12 that includes five visiting actors from the U.K. (Flynn is especially good in a hazily written role.)
After his recent success in film, including Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, McDonagh seems to relish the chance to work in a less realistic medium. But rather than pushing that potential into new territory—as in his 2003 masterwork, The Pillowman—he falls into comfy conventions that he winks at, but which also function as excuses for a thin and implausible story. Matthew Dunster’s production, imported to the Atlantic after a West End run, adds to the sense of artifice, with lurching shifts of mood-lighting and a physical space that works directly against the attempted comic suspense of the play’s denouement. (One character spends most of it delivering a speech directly to the audience, with his back to everyone onstage.) McDonagh twists his plot into a misanthropic noose that is only strong enough, in the end, to leave the play dangling, without a lethal snap. But yes, it does seem cool.
Atlantic Theater Company (Off Broadway). By Martin McDonagh. Directed by Matthew Dunster. With Mark Addy, Johnny Flynn. Running time: 2hrs 15mins. One intermission.