I’m not sure Martin McDonagh likes his audiences very much, but who knows? Presenting someone with a challenge, breeching their comfort zone, forcing them to reconsider assumptions, these could arguably be acts of love. If I pander to your notions of morality and humor, you’ll be entertained for an evening, if I refuse to pander, then maybe you’ll feel compelled to think. Still, it’s hard to imagine McDonagh not taking profound enjoyment from watching us squirm. He encourages us to try a bite of stew before revealing the actual ingredients. In plays such as The Pillow Man, The Lieutenant at Inishmore, and A Behanding in Spokane (currently playing at Second Thought Theater) he gleefully creates situations that invite us to wince and guffaw at the same time. You laugh out loud and immediately wonder if it was inappropriate.
When A Behanding in Spokane opens, we see Carmichael, a middle-aged, haunted looking guy (with only one hand) sitting in a hotel room. Prolonged moaning from a closet prompts him to fire a gun, ending the caterwauling. Perhaps it’s the timing, but we chuckle. We learn that as a boy, Carmichael was mutilated by a gang of hillbillies, who used a passing train to sever his hand, then used it to wave goodbye. Carmichael is waiting for a couple who have found and promised to sell him back his lost extremity. As he explains to Mervyn, the night clerk, he understands it can no longer work, but wants back what’s rightfully his.
Tennessee Williams had the knack of lyrical dialogue, but nobody has the gift for nightmarish poetry like McDonagh. The melancholy, pathetic Carmichael is also a racist, so it’s propitious when Toby and Marylin (a mixed couple) produce the contraband, that it belonged to an aborigine. When Carmichael leaves the hotel room, he cuffs Marylin and Toby’s hands to pipes. They discover a suitcase filled with hands. The play reverberates with thematic rhyming. Carmichael’s mother is fanciful enough to retrieve a balloon from a tree, but more virulently bigoted than her son. When Carmichael calls Toby a “fag” for crying, Marylin denounces his homophobia. All five characters are in a desperate situation, yet they cling to the particulars of decent behavior. Which may be the point. Perhaps we’re all living in a world of volatile, blasé carnage, and decent behavior is our only hope for salvation. Perhaps when we forfeit the humanity of tears, we start down the road to anathema.