‘Hangmen’: Welcome Back, Martin McDonagh

A few thoughts about Hangmen, the new play from Martin McDonagh, which I caught up with belatedly at the Atlantic Theater Company:

It’s a nice comeback for McDonagh, whose work I have loved (The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Pillowman), but have been disappointed with lately (A Behanding in Spokane, the last play of his to be seen in New York). I was also just mixed about his Oscar-nominated movie Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. While I thought Wesley Morris’s envisceration of the film in the Sunday Times a few weeks ago was a little over the top, I agree that McDonagh seems off his game when he ventures out of his home territory, and his portrayal of small-town American bigotry and redemption seemed too forced and calculated.

In Hangmen he is back, much more comfortably, on home turf; a pub in the north of England, run by the local executioner, whose job has just been eliminated by government fiat. As he did in his plays set in rural Ireland, McDonagh satirizes the pomposity,  insularity and small-mindedness of the locals, but without caricature or condescension. He is helped immensely by a terrific ensemble cast, most of them imported from the Royal Court Theater in London, where the play originated.

McDonagh is one playwright who still likes plots, and this one — involving an interloper from London who sows doubts about the guilt of one of the hangman’s last victims — has a few satisfying twists and surprises. Also surprisingly, even though it’s a play about hanging, there is relatively little of the grisly violence that McDonagh often foists on us so gleefully. This is a black comedy with an emphasis on the comedy, and I walked out of it smiling.

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