Broadway review by Adam Feldman
"Even when I try to be funny, I come across more as menacing,” says a chap named Mooney (Alfie Allen) in Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen, a play that wants to be both of those things. It is 1965, and with his languorous 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 (David Threlfall) and his wife, Alice (Tracie Bennett). 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 and deriding his executioners—led by Wade and his stammering aide, Syd (Andy Nyman)—as “nincompoops.” The punchy dialogue is tinged with local color, and is performed by a fine cast of 12 that includes several visiting actors from the U.K. (John Horton is especially funny as a nearly deaf old barfly.) Most of the cast has changed since Matthew Dunster’s 2018 production at the Atlantic Theater—which itself followed a run in the West End—and the play weighs out somewhat differently: Threlfall’s Wade is heavier and scarier than Mark Addy’s was, while Allen is lighter and less idiosyncratic than Johnny Flynn. Hangmen itself, however, has the same core problem it always had: Beneath its slick coating, it’s a slack exercise that in retrospect makes almost no sense at all.
After his success in film, including Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, McDonagh seems to relish the chance to work in a less realistic medium (though that movie was hardly cinéma vérité). But rather than pushing that potential into new territory—as in his 2003 masterwork, The Pillowman—McDonagh winks at conventions even as he uses them to cover up a thin and implausible story. Dunster’s staging adds to the sense of artifice, with lurching shifts of mood lights, Tarantino-esque music cues and a physical space that works directly against the would-be suspense of the play’s denouement. For a while, yes, it seems cool: Hangmen has plenty of twists. But the twists wind up forming a sloppy noose that is strong enough only to leave the play dangling, without a lethal snap, when the bottom falls out in the end.
Hangmen. Golden Theatre (Broadway). By Martin McDonagh. Directed by Matthew Dunster. With David Threlfall, Alfie Allen, Tracie Bennett, Gaby French, John Horton, Andy Nyman. Running time: 2hrs 20mins. One intermission.
Hangmen | Photograph: Courtesy Joan Marcus