In this tough economy, it’s tempting to try a new trade to bring in some extra cash. So here’s a helpful hint from Tony-nominated playwright Martin McDonagh (The Lonesome West, Pillowman) and the folks from Orlando’s fledgling Howler’s Theatre: If you’re switching from selling weed to selling body parts, make sure that the complexion of the mummified hand you’re peddling matches the ethnicity of its purported donor. Otherwise, you could end up like small-time scammer Toby (Aaron Smalls) and his sexy, scheming girlfriend Marilyn (Jamie-Lyn Markos), the protagonists of A Behanding in Spokane – handcuffed to the radiator in a cheap hotel room, waiting to be murdered by a monodexterous maniac.
Said maniac, Carmichael (Scott Browning), is a sympathetic character, as far as homicidal villains with cases full of severed hands go; you could almost support his Ahab-esque quest to reclaim his long-lost left extremity (supposedly stolen by rampaging hicks) and his righteous fury at being ripped off by Toby and Marilyn, if he weren’t a psychotic racist. The real wild card in this foursome is Mervyn (Tony Demil), the speed-addled hotel clerk, whose pique at a past slight hinders him in aiding the desperate pair when he stumbles across their plight.
The collision of these outrageous characters results in a riotous, inky-black comedy. Behanding may not be as politically pointed as McDonagh’s earlier work, but it’s every bit as darkly hilarious. The play, which to my knowledge has never been performed in Orlando before, was an ambitious choice for Howler’s Theatre’s second production. While the seams of this micro-budget staging occasionally show, first-time director Jeremy Wood does a fine job of effectively blocking the show’s physical comedy within the confines of the intimate Art’s Sake Studio. Meanwhile, his cast often upstages the big-name originators of their roles. I had the misfortune to see the 2010 Broadway production, and while I liked the script, I found deep flaws in the celebrity casting – flaws that Howler’s actors largely overcome.
Browning plays Carmichael as nervous and aggressive from the opening. Though he’s credibly insane, he’s also underage for the role as originally written, which compromises his chilling gravitas. Christopher Walken, by contrast, phoned in his usual Walken-plays-Walken performance from another planet, emotionally oblivious to everyone on the stage around him. I’d prefer to see an actor split the difference, but Browning’s take was at least recognizably human.
Likewise, on Broadway, Sam Rockwell’s Mervyn seemed stoned to the point of somnambulance, but here, Demil has the perfect Red Bull-fueled deportment, and Woods wisely gives him a stage covered with strange props to play with during his ADD-tinged midshow monologue. With the leads trying to out-laconic each other, that NYC staging lacked momentum; Woods and company maintain a propulsive pace until the breathtaking end. Markos is much easier on the eyes and ears than scrawny, shrill Zoe Kazan was (did she never take an acting class from her parents?) while Smalls strikes a similarly sniveling note as Anthony Mackie, who was the least-known but best-cast performer in the New York version.
If you’re faint of heart, be forewarned: There’s more foul language here than in a Mamet anthology, and little deeper meaning to lighten the filth. But bravo to Howler’s for making me laugh, then cringe, then laugh again, bolder and better than their mega-budget Broadway forebears did.
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