Saturday, February 5, 2011

The cruel truths of Martin McDonagh

Tadhg Murphy ponders his fate as Cripple Billy.
Martin McDonagh, I think, will always be known as the very good playwright who was never quite a great playwright. And the reason is clear: his vision is compromised by his personality. McDonagh's great theme is sadism. But he also seems to be a sadist.  And that tends, you know, to compromise his perspective on his material.

Which is too bad, because he's certainly clever and funny as hell (if hell is made of ice rather than fire). And certainly The Cripple of Inishmaan - now at ArtsEmerson's Paramount through Sunday - shows off both McDonagh's misanthropic wit and his ability to build metaphor through the barest of means. What's more, Cripple even glints here and there with daubs of conventional sentiment; not everyone in it is a terrorist, for instance, or gleefully torments the helpless.

Of course some of them do; but then this is practically the sine qua non of the McDonagh manner, which is most notable for the importation of the kind of scenes we'd expect to find in the bondage cellars of Quentin Tarantino's skeezy L.A. onto the windswept shores of Ireland. Not that McDonagh is himself Irish; he's English - but born of Irish parents; thus, perhaps, the icy, child-like dissection of Gaelic mores that serves as the backbone of almost all his plays (unsurprisingly, he has never set a single script in his hometown - London - or among his own social set; all his work is a projected teen fantasy of resentment).

As for the Tarantino part - well, McDonagh has all but admitted he was pretty aimless until he saw his first Tarantino films in the mid-90's. Sensing a kindred spirit in the lantern-jawed torture-porn auteur, and grasping that movies like Pulp Fiction had opened up a cultural space in which the spoiled jadedness of Gen-X could slide into "ironic" cruelty, McDonagh promptly sat down and penned virtually his entire ouevre in a matter of months.  And his haughty sense of craft - at least when it comes to dialogue and shorter scenes, if not larger structures - soon made him a star in a field hungry for any author with old-time dramatic flair, however coldly rendered. (It didn't hurt that McDonagh's plays were a frank imitation of the coolest trend in movies, either.)

The Cripple of Inishmaan has some pride of place in this achievement - it's not as vicious as The Beauty Queen of Lenane, not as pretentious as The Pillowman, and not as brutally empty as The Lieutenant of Inishmore. It may represent the playwright's peak, in fact, and is chiefly interesting for the way it see-saws between two emotional and moral abodes - the author's usual charnel house/abbatoir, and some place more humane, at times even cozy.  Its central character, Cripple Billy (Tadhg Murphy, above left), whose parents died under mysterious circumstances when he was a babe, has been brought up by two eccentric "aunts" (Ingrid Craigie and Dearbhla Molloy) who run a run-down grocery on Ireland's coast that seems to sell only eggs and peas.  Poor Billy is afflicted in many ways - not only must he bear up under twisted limbs, crossed eyes, and a speech impediment, but he's also in love with the beautiful, cruel Slippy Helen (Claire Dunne), and so bored he sometimes finds himself staring at cows (then again, one of his aunties talks to rocks).

When a Hollywood crew arrives on a nearby island to film Man of Aran, Billy sees a possible way out of his torment - and even bends the truth a bit to get a shot at a screen test.   Which feeds into McDonagh's second major concern - the way in which the moral standing of the world shifts with the stories we tell (and believe) about it.  His characters speak to one another with the hard-hearted innocence of children, and yet still the actual "truth" about the world remains strikingly unstable.  We hear several versions, for instance, of how Billy's parents perished - and depending on which one we put our faith in, they seem either heroes or horrors.  Likewise McDonagh teases us with the possibility that much, or perhaps all, of Billy's escape to L.A. is a fiction; has he found fame and fortune playing inspiring cripples in Hollywood, or is he instead dying somewhere of tuberculosis (as the "wheeze" of his early scenes suggests)?  Meanwhile trundling about town - in an obviously symbolic role - is JohnnyPateenMike (the hilarious Dermot Crowley), a pompous little gossip who styles himself "a newsman."  Well, perhaps, but which pieces of his news can we believe - and how does the meaning of life change depending on what we choose?  Seen one way, Cripple Billy's life is a recipe for despair (it hints that God himself is as casually cruel as Slippy Helen); narrated differently, however, it's positively uplifting (he was saved from death by those who love him).

These are quite serious themes, and McDonagh eloquently suggests them - all while demonstrating that every version of the world has been subtly (or even secretly) colored by the people who have crafted it.  All this makes The Cripple of Inishmaan a remarkable play.  If only McDonagh had stopped there!  But I have to report that this usually fastidious writer has crippled Cripple with scenes of pure filler, in which mean-spirited practical jokes and musings on motiveless wickedness eat up nearly half an hour of stage time.  And the finale is likewise drawn out to no apparent end - McDonagh simply swings at will between alternate readings of poor Billy's fate long after we've gotten the point; we can almost hear the playwright musing, "Now am I going to be nice this time - or nasty?  Nice?  Or nasty?  Nice or nasty?  Nice-or-nasty?" By the finish, I felt like packing off for home and leaving McDonagh to his own narrative dilemma, his themes at the mercy of his own predilections.

Still, the near-definitive Druid Theatre production obscures these flaws almost as far as possible.  The Druid's artistic director, Garry Hynes, discovered McDonagh back in the 90's - The Beauty Queen of Lenane premiered there - and by now his manner is in her (and her cast's) very bones.  Thus the acting in this touring version is pretty much impeccable - with the possible exception of the lovely Clare Dunne, who never finds a plausible center to the sadistic Slippy Helen (whose abusive nature I think must stem from her own sexual abuse).  Everyone else is wonderful, though - with perhaps special laurels going to star Tadhg Murphy, those dotty aunties, Ingrid Craigie and Dearbhla Molloy, and Dermot Crowley's memorable JohnnyPateenMike.  The cast is also graced with a local star - Nancy E. Carroll - who more than holds her own as Johnny's bitter 90-year-old mother, whom he's trying to off with drink, and who returns the favor by cackling happily whenever she ponders him in his coffin.  In McDonagh's most inspired gambit, these two vultures briefly muse about "that man with the funny mustache" who has just become Chancellor of Germany.  Which only reminds us that the moral questions disturbing a tiny hamlet on the west coast of Ireland are the same ones that disturb the world.

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