What a coup for the Atlantic Theater Company to currently house the best new play in New York by a playwright and director nominated for two Oscars.
The mystery is why Martin McDonagh’s brilliant, electrifyingly satisfying Hangmen isn’t on Broadway right from the get-go; caution perhaps—it will likely follow the path of its London trajectory where it began its five-star, rave-reviewed life at the Royal Court Theatre in 2015 before transferring to the West End.
Hangmen is already a sell-out success, which is hardly surprising given the buzz around McDonagh generally, but especially given his Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Original Screenplay for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri—nominations that have proved controversial, given the film’s portrayal of race and racism.
In its opening scene—a heady mixture of brutality and dark humor that McDonagh writes so well, and which is the hallmark of this play—Hangmen, directed by Matthew Dunster, first takes the audience to Britain in 1963, and to a dank jail cell where a prisoner called James Hennessy (Gilles Geary) is pleading for his life as the hangman’s noose swings in preparation.
The hangman is Harry Wade (Mark Addy), a large and bluff Northerner, whom Hennessy immediately mocks: They could have at least sent Pierrepoint, he says, referring to Albert Pierrepoint, Britain’s most pre-eminent executioner.
Harry is in Pierrepoint’s shadow, and later—at the worst possible moment—Pierrepoint, played by Maxwell Caulfield (of Dynasty/Miles Colby fame) appears to take issue with Albert talking up his own executioner skills. Both men are competitive about the numbers of people they have killed, and their own professionalism.
Their sniping sounds funny until you consider the business of death they are trading barbs about. Fans of McDonagh will know that in the mining of absurdity and extremity lies the exposure of truth.
The play flashes forward two years later to 1965. The walls of the jail cell fold away to reveal one of the best evocations of a British pub I have ever seen on TV and stage. You can feel the fug of cigarettes and the smell of spilled bitter in Anna Fleischle’s excellent set (that even incorporates a café with rain-soaked windows that Fleischle accommodates in the eaves of the pub).
This pub in Oldham, Lancashire, belongs to Harry and his wife Alice (Sally Rogers). With capital punishment now abolished, the pub is both Harry’s refuge and kingdom. He and Alice struggle to understand their daughter Shirley (Gaby French). Shirley’s inner turmoil is dismissed as “mooning,” and their parental ignorance dovetails, potentially tragically, with the appearance of the menacing Mooney (Johnny Flynn), whose name mirrors the “mooning” Shirley’s parents struggle to identify.
Mooney is a hint of the swinging ’60s in this claustrophobic pub. He is the opposite to the other 1960s, the stultifying universe of tradition and rules Harry embodies. Mooney has a shag haircut, a sneering malevolence, a peacock’s strut, and a constant stream of insinuating, ever-so-slightly menacing chit-chat.
Flynn as Mooney is terrifying, hilarious, and mesmerizing. Who is he? What is he? Where has he come from? He reminded me of Sloane in Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr. Sloane: an easy smile, a leering thorn in the side of authority and conventional decency, and possibly concealing a weapon in his pocket.
McDonagh’s command of language and pace is as mischievous as it is virtuosic; like Orton, he plays on words, subverts meanings, and knows how repetition and wordplay can work in glorious absurdity, as when these bluff men’s men—or so they would like us to think—find themselves saying “cock” over and over again.
This is a play about men, and its significant flaw is that it does not know what to do with its female characters. Alice is little more than an archetypal Northern landlady, with big hair, an outward brassiness, and a scarred heart of gold. Shirley is a little more calibrated; she is not simply the doe-eyed ingénue, but has an intelligence and guile we see only flashes of. Schematically, the play ensures her absence and Alice's comparative silence.
The counterargument is that Hangmen is merely being true to its time and setting, which would also explain the play’s glancing sexism and racism. They are just there, present, not celebrated. His wife and daughter know their places as Harry’s adjuncts. He is unfamiliar to them, and mother and daughter cling to each other.
Just like the real, retired Pierrepoint had, Harry has a pub, and this pub has a comic gallery of drinking regulars, one of whom is probably a serious alcoholic and another who mishears things and has to have them explained—a familiar comedy trope, and here another outlet for more wonderful McDonagh timing.
But propping up one other corner of the bar is a dour, inscrutable police inspector Fry (David Lansbury). He knows who the real Harry is; a far from affable timebomb, who misses the glory of all his kills—the war criminals, the domestic criminals, and the wrongly accused whose miscarriages of justice, and whose deaths he oversaw, he doesn’t allow to weigh on his mind.
Harry’s assistant Syd (Reece Shearsmith, excellently obsequious) at first seems a comic sidekick, but he too has a plan to exact some long-considered revenge on his former boss.
He would do well to take care. If you’re unsure over who Mooney is and what he is capable of, you are just as unsure over Harry, as played by the brilliant Addy whose warmth can turn to fury in a split second. His job gave him everything of the identity he wanted to project to the world—authority, leavened by others’ fear.
When his own worst fears over the fate of his daughter appear to be confirmed, he can see only one recourse to reassert himself. The meticulous stage-craft of the ensuing, graphic violence, choreographed by J. David Brimmer, is so smooth that it is, in the spirit of the play, both very funny and very dark.
No spoilers here, but in his twists and turns of the plot, McDonagh warps and deconstructs not only the violence that men do, but also the violence they would like one another to believe that they are capable of. Hangmen is about fantasies of violence and real violence, legalized murder and criminal murder, and the ever-diminishing returns of male one-upmanship and desire to control.
In Hangmen we are finally left with men left behind by time; two hangmen who, once literal executioners of responsibility and authority, now need to escape the same for their own continued liberty.
One of their sins is obvious, it’s right in front of us. Something else, the charged, problematic specter of capital punishment, is suspended in the smoky fug of the pub. These men have absolutely no idea what to do and now no power to protect themselves with. It is both quietly devastating and revealingly absurd.
Hangmen is at the Atlantic Theater Company (Linda Gross Theater), 336 West 20th Street, New York City, until March 7.