Magazine article The New Yorker

Underhanded

Magazine article The New Yorker

Underhanded

Article excerpt

I don't know a single self-respecting black actor who wouldn't feel shame and fury while sitting through Martin McDonagh's new play, "A Behanding in Spokane" (directed by John Crowley, at the Gerald Schoenfeld). Nor do I know one who would have the luxury of turning the show down, once the inevitable tours and revivals get under way. The play is engineered for success, and McDonagh's stereotypical view of black maleness is a significant part of that engineering. Still, one wonders how compromised the thirty-one-year-old Anthony Mackie must feel, playing Toby, a black prole whose misadventures are central to this four-character show. Mackie recently attracted notice for his portrayal of a bomb-squad sergeant in Kathryn Bigelow's Iraq war movie "The Hurt Locker." But even in that role he was drawing on a paradigm--Lou Gossett, Jr.,'s 1982 portrayal of a drill sergeant in "An Officer and a Gentleman." The sad fact is that, in order to cross over, most black actors of Mackie's generation must act black before they're allowed to act human.

Since McDonagh's first play, "The Beauty Queen of Leenane," was staged on Broadway, in 1998, American audiences have been struck by his universality, despite the fact that Ireland is home to most of his characters. (McDonagh was born in London in 1970 to Irish parents.) Instead of catering to the cliche of the lovable, maudlin Irish--the Celtic counterpart to America's black mammy and Uncle Remus--McDonagh set out to subvert it. He seemed to scrape his sentences off the cruddy cobblestones of his parents' bleak, rural West of Ireland. There he found not only his theme--home as the breeding ground of a malignancy known as family--but his tone, which is bitterly comedic. In McDonagh's 1997 play, "The Lonesome West," two brothers, Coleman and Valene, argue over who has been drinking whose poteen; they're more concerned about that, really, than they are about the fact that Coleman has killed their father. "The Lonesome West" is said to have been inspired by Sam Shepard's "True West," another play about sibling rivalry and the myths of masculinity, but one hears less Shepard in McDonagh than J. M. Synge, the nineteenth-century Irish playwright, whose Gaelic rhythms, wild narratives, and unimpeachable sense of structure clearly left their mark on his disciple. Synge's unfinished last play, "Deirdre of the Sorrows," opens with a conversation between two women ("She hasn't come yet, is it, and it falling to the night?" "She has not. . . . It's dark with the clouds coming from the west and south, but it isn't later than the common") who could just as easily be the aging sisters whose banter begins McDonagh's 1996 play, "The Cripple of Inishmaan":

KATE: Is Billy not yet home?

EILEEN: Not yet is Billy home.

KATE: I do worry awful about Billy when he's late returning home.

EILEEN: I banged me arm on a can of peas worrying about Cripple Billy.

KATE: Was it your bad arm?

EILEEN: No, it was me other arm. . . .

KATE: Now you have two bad arms.

EILEEN: Well, I have one bad arm and one arm with a knock.

KATE: The knock will go away.

EILEEN: The knock will go away.

KATE: And you'll be left with the one bad arm.

EILEEN: The one bad arm will never go away.

By the time McDonagh's "The Pillowman," premiered on Broadway, in 2005, he had taken his penchant for setting a play's tone in its first moments to a whole new level. "Pillowman" marries Synge to Kafka, with Harold Pinter as a witness. In the opening scene, a man and his mentally handicapped brother are being held as suspects in the murders of local children. But that bit of gruesomeness is just a pretext. The play's brilliance lies in what comes next: a series of tales about the interchangeability of familial love and abuse, and our need for stories to get us through the hall of mirrors that we call a self, or a sibling.

After "Pillowman," McDonagh wrote and directed two films. …

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