Hangmen made me thirsty, especially after the shock of the first scene. I had read scenic designer Anna Fleischle’s comments on the challenge of this three-setting play, first produced at the Royal Court Theatre in London, then here in New York to occupy the small space of the Atlantic Theater Company (formerly a church on West 20th street where I’m 99% sure I saw a delightful Much Ado something like thirty years ago). Each setting had to be independent of the other two, and yet permanent in a limited space.
The first scene is a humdinger. A young man is about to be hanged (it’s England in the early 1960s, Lancashire), screaming his innocence every step of the way. There are arguments and recriminations and accusations and a rope and a noose and a WHOOSH —- from the stage and then from the audience as the air rushed out of them when a trapdoor dropped the protesting young man and he disappeared below the stage. Hanged. Horror.
After that opening, the scene is handily turned into a pub — the comfy corner sort with a warm wooden bar and a landlady truly pulling those pints of ale — with the jailhouse set rising to hover above as the pub’s ceiling while the memory of that gallows never leaves anyone in the pub.
As is the norm with playwright Martin McDonagh, there is laughter, guilt, laughter, guilt, horror and fear. Hanging is now a punishment of the past in England, although the hangman the audience saw doing his job in that first scene — and whose wife runs this pub — doesn’t believe the moratorium on hanging will last. A young reporter tries to get numbers from him — how many men — maybe women –— had he hanged?
Harry the hangman’s former assistant Syd, played by Reece Shearsmith, with whom Harry had fallen out, shows up casting doubt on the guilt of that last pathetic young man hanged, who had been convicted of killing a young woman on a beach.
Harry the hangman is a guy next door sort of fellow and is played by the wonderful Mark Addy. He’s a hale-fellow-well-met sort of hangman in the pub: bigoted, bitter, judgmental but funny. Everything that happens onstage is played with simplicity and realism, from the ridiculous conversations among the pub’s regular drunks to the searing doubts cast by the former assistant Syd. Harry’s wife Alice (Sally Rogers) owns the pub and has a complicated relationship with her husband — similar, perhaps to any difficult transition when one spouse’s retirement creates chaos at home. Harry and Alice live above the pub with their teenage daughter Shirley, whom Harry calls “Mopey.” And they have a spare room.
The entire small cast is superb, from Gaby French as Harry & Alice’s teenage daughter to an unrecognizable Maxwell Caufield as the hangman’s greatest rival, also now a publican.
McDonagh, in concert with his sharp director Matthew Dunster, heats it up at the end of the first act, when the creepy Mooney (who prefers the term “menacing”), a southern stranger (as in from down London way), tries to rent the spare room from Alice. Johnny Flynn does fine work as Mooney insinuates himself in with the ladies of the family, while scaring the bejesus out of the audience. Instead of becoming a boarder (which thought fills the audience with dread), Mooney has a one-sided shouting match with Alice and storms off. Meanwhile the “mopey” daughter has gone out without a word.
Was the last hanged man truly innocent and is this menacing Mooney the real killer? Where’s daughter Shirley gone?
Act 2 opens with Syd fanning the flames of fear. The police are called in when Shirley does not return, and the young reporter Harry had treated so rudely in the first act comes in to assist in finding the girl. In return for a newspaper story about Shirley, he gets all those numbers he wanted. Connections, relationships, false or misleading, confuse us all as the tension mounts with everyone wondering where’s Shirley? Mooney returns and …. No, I cannot tell you that. Suffice to say that all the stops are pulled out in Act 2, with another rope, another noose, lightning (courtesy Joshua Carr, lighting designer), thunder, and another hanging question.
Hangmen is oddly lacking in blood (my first McDonagh was The Lieutenant of Inishman, which was the bloodiest play I’d ever seen) and may not be McDonagh’s best, but this mystery thriller is a roller coaster ride of a good evening in the theatre.
~ Molly Matera, signing off to watch In Bruges.