Author Graham Greene wrote two types of books. His novels (The Power and the Glory, The Quiet American), onto which he staked his literary reputation, and his “entertainments” (Our Man in Havana, The Third Man) which he put forth as light-hearted page-turners, merely meant to be enjoyable. I often think about Greene’s divide when approaching new theater. Great plays try for literary merit; but amusing entertainments have their rewards, too.
Martin McDonagh’s A BEHANDING IN SPOKANE is an entertainment, barely reaching for serious emotional investment or post-show contemplation, but judged as that it is mostly very successful: humorous start to finish, wildly absurd, with well-shaped — if shallow — characters. Theatre Exile’s production, now on stage at the Christ Church Neighborhood House, is satisfyingly fun.
The entire 90-minute show takes place in a hotel room (design: Meghan Jones) somewhere in the American West (not Spokane). A weathered traveler (Pearce Bunting) is on a quest to find his severed hand, stolen from him some quarter-century ago. (There’s an attempt at profundity in one man’s search for a missing piece of himself.) Two small-time pot dealers (Reuben Mitchell and Amanda Schoonover) see an opportunity to scam by selling him an appendage stolen from a local museum. As the play begins, the couple are already in way over their heads. The one-handed Mr. Carmichael means business, and has a gun to prove it. At his mercy, their relationship strains.
MARILYN: We deal weed, we don’t deal hands.
TOBY: You didn’t need to tell that to the crazy cracker in the middle of a hand deal.
Into the violent fray steps Mervyn (Matt Pfeiffer), a hotel receptionist desperate for excitement (“I always hoped there’d be a massacre at my high school”). Hearing a distinctive noise from the room, he eagerly investigates.
MERVYN: Was that a gunshot?
MERVYN: That gun being shot.
CARMICHAEL: Oh that. No, that was a car backfiring.
MERVYN: In your room?
McDonagh’s dialog is fast and witty, and director Joe Canuso keeps a lightning pace, with only the occasional lull. He is aided by fine acting, with Bunting intensely and comically severe and Mitchell providing many of the laughs. More often found helming productions than starring in them, Pfeiffer is perhaps the finest director in the city, and his directorial instincts bring nuance to a straight-man role.
McDonagh made his name with violent portrayals of small-town Ireland. In action and fun level, SPOKANE matches THE LIEUTENANT OF INISHMORE from Exile’s 2010/11 season. But small-town America was long-ago exposed as violently unromantic, and comments on the flimsy ethics of low-level drug dealers carries less weight than commentary on the confused immorality of Irish terrorists. It’s nice to see that McDonagh’s work is transportable and doesn’t rely on exaggerated Irish brogue, but I’m left wondering what has been transported.
Well, entertainment, that’s all. And for 90 minutes, that’s enough. April 19-May 3, 2012, theatreexile.org.