Tuesday, March 30, 2010

All About Me (Henry Miller’s Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

If Dame Edna and Michael Feinstein are not exactly a match made in heaven, they go into this with eyes wide open. And they’re nothing if not savvy pros. Edna – aka Aussie comedian Barry Humphries – for his/her part, certainly has plenty of experience working with the most disparate of performers on his various Edna television series.

Written by Humphries and Christopher Durang (conceived by Humphries with Lizzie Spender and Terrence Flannery), this offbeat pairing, though sometimes effortful, ultimately comes off, and provides the requisite entertainment value.

After a teasing overture, with snippets of iconic Broadway musicals, the show opens with Feinstein in atypical, brassy, Vegas mode belting “Strike up the Band,” followed by several others including a more characteristic “My Romance,” his voice slightly husky. Before long, he’s interrupted by Edna, glitteringly gowned by Stephen Adnitt, atop set designer Anna Louizos’ staircase, insisting that the “Me” of the title refers to her.

The monologue that follows has the iconic character’s usual satiric jibes against celebrities, in this case Liza Minnelli, Susan Boyle, Neil Patrick Harris, Madonna, Ruth Madoff -- Edna’s renamed the paupers in the balcony as “friends of Bernie” who have now fallen on hard times -- and two hapless ladies in the orchestra – on this occasion, one Margaret and Thelma -- who probably regretted sitting as close as they did.

It eventually takes a butch stage manager (Jodi Capeless) to mediate, and declare that the evening will henceforth be shared. After a costume change for the stars, during which Capeless surprises us by belting out a Kander & Ebb number), there’s a one-minute-each face-off giving way to the pair agreeing to don an act of standards, koala bears, medleys, and dramatic songs.

And indeed they do. Feinstein gets to deliver “A Lot of Livin’ to Do,” and “What Did I Have That I Don’t Have?” Edna reprises “The Ladies Who Lunch” -- which she did at a Sondheim benefit in London over a decade ago -- with surprising effectiveness even after previously declaring a “Sondheim-free zone.” Her excuse? She doesn’t believe “little Stevie” wrote it. “Too catchy,” she quips.

Medleys and duets follow, under Casey Nicholaw’s light-hearted direction. Edna’s falsetto squawk blends surprisingly well with Feinstein’s in the mostly comic numbers, and after all, Humphries is, of course, no stranger to musicals, originating roles in Lionel Bart’s “Oliver!” and “Maggie May.”

Somewhere in there is a pair of dancing koala bears played by dancers Gregory Butler and Jon-Paul Mateo who appear throughout the evening in various supporting guises.

Edna has an especially amusing piece of special material, sung in tribute to Meryl Streep a la Helen Morgan, atop the piano “The Dingo Ate My Baby.”

Feinstein and Humphries wrote several of the jolly original songs, either solo or in collaboration, while other hands are credited with others.

They may indeed be “oil and water,” as one of their lyrics goes, wickedly rhyming the phrase with “Alec Baldwin and his daughter” but Barry Humphries is one of the truly outstanding satirists of our time, a great performer and a true Renaissance man, and Feinstein one of our finest interpreters of the Great American Songbook, so we can overlook those moments when their personas don’t really gel.

This may not be high art – though the brilliance of Humphries’ wit and the interpretive skill that Feinstein brings to several of the songs here – do indeed fit the definition. But viewed as a sort of 21st century vaudeville, it’s a lot of fun, and what’s wrong with that?

Gladiolas – a Dame Edna trademark – are strewn fairly liberally by show’s end, and the standing ovation at the end – though coaxed by the stars -- is, in fact, authentically earned.

But hurry, the show has, alas, posted a closing notice of April 4.

(Henry Miller’s Theatre, 124 West 43rd Street, Telecharge.com, or 212-239-6200)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Mlle. Modiste (Light Opera of New York)

By Harry Forbes

The enterprising Light Opera of New York company hit its stride with the second presentation of its three-part Victor Herbert festival, presented on Thursday, March 18 at the Players.

That “Mlle. Modiste” is less grandly operatic than January’s offering, “Naughty Marietta” had something to do with it, but the returning cast members were in better form, and there was greater assurance in all departments this time around.

As impressive as Kristin Vogel was as Marietta, here -- as an aspiring opera singer marking time as a clerk in a Parisian hat shop, ca. 1905 -- she gave a more subtle and nuanced performance, tempering her strong soprano.

All her numbers, including Herbert’s signature piece, “Kiss Me Again” – warmly sung in Gary Slavin’s spotlight -- and the virtuosic “The Nightingale and the Star” were put across with great charm and poise.

The excellent Richard Holmes as the disapproving uncle of Fifi’s ardent suitor Etienne (John Tiranno) delivered the show’s other big showstopper, “I Want What I Want When I Want It” with customary flair. Tiranno did nicely with the show’s third take-home tune, “The Time and the Place and the Girl.”

Cory Clines made a most positive impression as Fifi’s rich American benefactor Hiram Bent, and appropriated “The Dear Little Girl Who is Good” (originally for the cut character of Rene). Hiram’s wife was, incidentally, another casualty of this streamlined production, which ditched her character’s comic number “The Keokuk Culture Club.”

The performing edition used here was, in fact, compiled by conductor Dino Anagnost for the Little Orchestra Society’s musically sumptuous mounting in 2001. As then, Henry Blossom’s original 1905 book was truncated and skillfully replaced by adapter Alyce Mott with narration (some quite witty) for Mme. Cecile, owner of the hat shop.

And certainly in a semi-staged, reduced-cast format like this, narration is preferable to reams of dialogue. Still, if this resulted in rather too much stage time for a fairly minor character, it was, at least, delivered with flair by Paula Rocheleau. And her second act comic song, “Ze English Language” (originally sung by her son Gaston) was one of the evening’s highlights, firmly sung and delivered with point.

The 2006 Musicals Tonight production, with only piano accompaniment, gave perhaps a more authentic sense of the Herbert and Blossom’s original structure with its innovative integration of music and libretto, and its (for its time) serious-minded attempt to tell a story about class distinction with a feminist underpinning.

But despite characters and songs being cut, reassigned to other characters, and moved about, LOONY’s production was highly satisfying.

Managing director Carol Davis did quite an ingenious job maximizing the company’s modest forces, and there were many deft touches, such as the utterly delightful pantomime by Brian Long (as the dog) and Nathan Brian (as the master) that accompanied Etienne’s “Love Me, Love My Dog.”

At the piano, Stephen Francis Vasta’s conducting of the Ambience Strings was, on this occasion, even more confident, playing very prettily, making it all the more a shame they couldn’t have been allowed a longer overture.

Lydia Gladstone’s costumes were once again a major plus, and made the evening as much a visual as a musical delight.

Next up on May 20 is “The Red Mill.”

(The Players, 16 Gramercy Park South, 212-249-9470 or www.LightOperaOfNewYork.org)

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Cocktail Party (TACT/The Actors Company Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

T.S. Eliot’s most accessible play has been given a rare mounting courtesy of the enterprising Actors Company Theatre (TACT). Their production demonstrates why the unusual, thought-provoking piece – written in verse, though you’d never know it -- enjoyed a lengthy Broadway run, and won the Best Play Tony Award in 1950.

On this occasion, Scott Alan Evans directs a solid cast led by Simon Jones in the role created by Alec Guinness, first at the 1949 Edinburgh Festival and then on Broadway, and later by Rex Harrison in London. It was this role that cemented Guinness' reputation with American audiences. The part is the “Uninvited Guest,” a mysterious character who shows up at the titular gathering, eventually shedding profound light on the lives of the others.

The action begins like many a English drawing-room comedy with barrister Edward Chamberlayne (Jack Koenig) playing awkward host as he entertains gregarious Julia (Cynthia Harris), world traveler Alex (Mark Alhadeff), socialite Celia (Lauren English) and aspiring Hollywood screenwriter Peter (Jeremy Beck) who, we soon learn, is enamored of Celia. Among the guests is this dapper Uninvited Guest who deftly skirts questions about his presence.

Edward’s wife Lavinia (Erika Rolfsrud) is curiously absent, and no one believes Edward’s flimsy excuse about her visiting a sick aunt. In fact, she has left him. He has been carrying on an affair with Celia, who now views Lavinia’s absence as their chance for happiness. Despite his loveless five-year marriage, Edward – feeling old and indecisive -- still wants her back for reasons he can barely articulate. Celia feels humiliated.

When the others have gone, though, the stranger reveals that Lavinia can come back provided no questions are asked.

In the second act, we learn the identity of the guest. He’s Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly, a psychiatrist, and he has summoned Edward and Lavinia for counseling, without informing either of them in advance. The tone has suddenly shifted to a serious one involving moral and spiritual choices, and ruminations on the human condition. The doctor speaks of “faith that issues from despair” and “suffering on the way to illumination.”

There are supernatural overtones, and one character comes to choose a radical life-altering course that actually results in that character finding salvation through martyrdom (i.e. a literal crucifixion).

Christian symbolism, in fact, abounds. When the play was first done, it was greatly talked about and its meaning much debated. (Eliot himself remained mum.) Present-day audiences may find some of the the portentous talk somewhat heavy going, and the “meaning” not so terribly mystifying after all. Decades ago, critic Kenneth Tynan found the symbolism “painfully simple.”

Among Eliot’s themes are psychiatry, then in vogue, and the emptiness of people’s lives. Characters complain of isolation and loneliness (“one is always alone,” one remarks), and that they can’t love or be loved.

Jones strikes the right tone as the enigmatic guest, and morphs convincingly into the authoritative and decisive character of the second act. English is appropriately worldly in the party scenes, and limns her extraordinary turnabout in the doctor’s office most movingly.

But the cast is excellent all around. Alhadeff is highly amusing as he insists on improvising a meal with limited ingredients for the abandoned Edward, and Harris provides ongoing comic relief as she chatters on about this or that.

David Toser’s period clothes conjure the era effectively. Andrew Lieberman and Laura Jellinek’s gray set – the Chamberlayne living room and then the doctor’s consulting room – serves well.

Whether comedy (as labeled by Eliot), social commentary, or religious tract, this is a meaty work that makes you think. And TACT’s fine production should help remind today’s audiences there’s much more to T.S. Eliot than his posthumous, unintended stage-success “Cats.”

(Beckett Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street, www.ticketcentral.com or 212-279-4200)

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Bounty Hunter (Columbia Pictures)

By Harry Forbes

Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler may not be the Jean Arthur and Cary Grant of our time, thinking back to one memorable Hollywood pairing, but they are both pros, and in their first film together, reveal appealing chemistry, even if they’re at loggerheads throughout.

Butler is Milo Boyd, an ex-NYPD-cop-turned-bounty-hunter who will get $5,000 if he tracks down his ex wife, Nicole (that’s Aniston), a reporter for the “Daily News” who’s jumped bail.

She’s been investigating a suspicious suicide that points towards corruption within the NYPD; he’s an inveterate gambler who owes money to a tough lady bookie (Cathy Moriarty). The bad guys are out to silence Nicole; the bookie’s gang is on the trail of Milo.

Milo apprehends Nicole early on, and en route to his bringing her in, they find themselves on a journey that takes them from the streets of New York to the Atlantic City boardwalk and points in between.

Mixed up in all this is Stewart (Jason Sudeikis), a nebbishy reporter from Nicole’s paper who has a crush on her, and a sadsack informant Jimmy (Adam Rose). The former finds himself apprehended by the bookies (mistaking him for Milo), the latter by Nicole’s vicious pursuers.

As far as formulaic action-adventure cum romantic comedies go, this is more than tolerable. The plot is lame, but Sarah Thorp’s script has some funny lines, and the leads carry you over the rough patches.

Aniston – looking quite smashing in the short black dress she wears for most of the film – is, in particular, quite an accomplished comedienne and savvy film actress. Because – like so many stars – she seems to be playing variations of herself, it’s easy not to appreciate the solid craft and many subtle touches she brings to every scene. There’s an honesty about her delivery that makes her especially sympathetic, and she has that ability to telegraph her thoughts even when not speaking.

Butler continues to prove himself a highly versatile leading man, even if his character here is only a slight variation on his turn in “The Ugly Truth,” that is, an unfeeling slob who turns out to be (surprise!) a likable, sensitive guy.

The action-dominated film takes a break for a long romantic interlude where the pair takes shelter at their honeymoon lodge and begin to connect again.

The script could be wittier, and the action elements cleverer and more plausible, but it serves to let the two stars strut their stuff, and as Nicole and Milo bond as they did during their married days, the relationship plays out convincingly. Christine Baranski is a hoot as Nicole’s randy burlesque queen mother.

Andy Tennant directs the disparate action, comedy, and romantic elements capably. Guys will be relieved that there’s at least as much in the way of action as romance.

(Rated PG-13 by the MPAA for sexual content including suggestive comments, language and some violence.)

Repo Men (Universal Pictures)

By Harry Forbes

No, this is not a remake of the 1984 cult satire, but a frequently gruesome futuristic tale about repo men whose job it is to repossess artificial body organs when the owners can no longer pay their monthly installments. (Humans apparently buy these so-called artiforgs to stay youthful and vibrant, heedless of the dire consequences should they fall behind in payments.)

Remy (Jude Law) and his partner Jake (Forest Whitaker), a pal but also a bully, go where they’re assigned by chief Frank (Liev Schreiber, once again playing an obnoxious heavy) to rip out the hearts and livers or whatever from the hapless deadbeats. They take glee in their grisly task, though Remy’s wife Carol (Carice Van Houten) has become fed up with her husband’s repugnant profession. He’s to ask for a sales job instead, or else, she warns him.

When Remy is seriously injured on the job, and requires an artificial heart himself, he suddenly develops a conscience, and wants out of the game, but now he, too, is in debt to the “union” that dispenses the part. And, of course, it’s Jake who’s eventually assigned the job of tracking down his old buddy.

Meanwhile, Carol, their young son in tow, has left Remy, despite his moral turnaround, freeing Remy to join forces with fellow debtor Beth (Alice Braga), who’s got more artificial body parts than you can count, as they elude Jake and other union goons.

In this inauspicious setting, Law manages his usual good work. Whitaker’s loathsome, character becomes tiresome, though Eric Garcia and Garrett Lerner’s script – based on Garcia’s novel, “The Repossession Mambo” -- keeps you guessing about how loyal a friend he’ll be to Remy.

The production notes indicate that Garcia intended his story to be a comedy and that it gradually morphed into “darkly comic social commentary,” but you’ll search in vain for any laughs here, except perhaps for Remy and Beth’s particularly repellent love scene near the end, involving all manner of non-sexual body parts.

Miguel Sapochnik’s direction is not without visual flair, aided by David Sandefur’s production design. A climactic chase in a large white laboratory with technicians outfitted in white is a striking example. But some suspenseful moments like that one aside, the violence and gore are pretty unpleasant to endure, ranking high on the yuck scale.

Don’t say you weren’t warned.

(Rated R by the MPAA for strong bloody violence, grisly images, language and some sexuality/nudity.)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Looped (Lyceum Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

The flamboyantly theatrical Tallulah Bankhead with her legendary grand manner, affected speech, and self-promoting notoriety could not be further removed from the New York honk of Rhoda Morgenstern.

But Valerie Harper – who, of course, has time and again proven her versatility -- embodies the theatrical legend to a tee, and audiences will have to strain to catch even a trace of mannerism of her iconic TV character.

Imperious, willful, flamboyant exasperating, foul-mouthed, sexually voracious, irreverent and yes, even vulnerable, Harper captures the very essence of a lady known as much for her off-stage shenanigans as her stage and screen triumphs (“Rain,” “The Little Foxes,” “Lifeboat,” “Private Lives,” “The Skin of Our Teeth,” etc.).

Playwright Matthew Lombardo’s premise is, in essence, a clever one. When Bankhead shot what would be her last movie -- the luridly titled “Die, Die, My Darling” in 1965 – it was necessary to post-sync (or loop) some of her dialogue which had come out distorted on the soundtrack. Bankhead’s antics in the sound studio were the stuff of legend.

Lombardo has taken some dramatic license in making it just one line of dialogue that needs to be redone. Over two acts, while a hapless film editor Danny (Brian Hutchinson) and sound technician Steve (Michael Mulheren) pull out their hair, Bankhead takes her sweet time, repeatedly fumbles her one line, stopping to drink, reminisce, and play the temperamental diva.

The play, smoothly directed by Rob Ruggiero, is not unlike “Souvenir” – that two-hander about off-key soprano Florence Foster Jenkins and her pianist – in its essential structure: larger-than-life personality and (shall we say) less dominant male against which the former can play. (Steve, in this case, doesn’t count, as he’s in his booth the whole time.)

Though for a long time, Danny serves merely as Bankhead’s sounding board, he gets more to do in the second act when finally, under Bankhead’s relentless badgering, he opens up to her about his sad personal life (as if we really care). He’s not exactly likable, as written, though his grumpy frustration at Bankhead’s scattered ramblings and boozing is certainly justified.

Though Bankhead’s image takes quite a drubbing (and much is made of her disastrous turn as Blanche DuBois), homage is eventually duly paid to Bankhead’s true glory days lest anyone exit the Lyceum thinking her whole career was a joke, and we learn she’s a good old gal underneath it all.

Many of the Bankhead’s outrageous witticisms and oft-told anecdotes about her are incorporated throughout, but Lombardo weaves them into an organic whole. The campy result is paper thin, but it proves an entertaining vehicle for powerhouse Harper, whose performance will be enjoyed even by those who have never heard of the actress she’s playing so vividly.

(Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street, 212-239-6200 or www.telecharge.com)

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Miracle Worker (Circle in the Square)

By Harry Forbes

Some reviews have been unaccountably lukewarm, but this is, in fact, a solid revival of William Gibson’s surefire audience pleaser about young Helen Keller’s extraordinary relationship with Annie Sullivan who, incredibly, taught the girl – blind and deaf after a fever in infancy – how to communicate, and understand the meaning of words.

Alison Pill as Sullivan and Abigail Breslin as Keller are first-rate in roles immortalized by Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke, both on stage and screen. Though they don’t erase memories of their predecessors’ performances, Pill and Breslin are so good you’re never tempted to make odious comparisons.

The setting is 1880s Alabama. Helen has been an unruly wild child spoiled by her doting parents (Matthew Modine and Jennifer Morrison) and aunt (Elizabeth Franz).

Annie is sent by the Perkins Institute for the Blind to help tame and teach her. She is a mere 20 years old, was once blind herself, and was raised in an asylum with a young brother who died, and whose memory continues to haunt her. (The boy, seen in flashbacks, is played quite effectively by Lance Chantiles-Wertz.)

Unable to exert the proper influence on Helen especially after a tremendous display of violent willfulness at the dinner table, Annie begs the Kellers for two weeks alone with the girl in their abandoned cabin to be able to teach her in an environment free of their well-meaning interference.

Director Kate Whorisky, last represented by the powerful “Ruined,” does full justice to the physicality of the play, particularly those dinner scenes where the food and silverware really fly. (Kudos, incidentally, to movement coach Lee Sher.)

Film star Breslin makes an auspicious stage debut, fully inhabiting the role – whimpers and primal screams her only dialogue – and Pill is completely convincing as a sturdy, almost brittle, New Englander with no compunctions about going head to head, when she must, with the blustery, Civil War veteran Captain Keller (an excellent Modine).

The bond between pupil and mentor – one that would, in fact, last well beyond the events depicted here – is touchingly conveyed in the interaction between Pill and Breslin.

There’s fine support from Tobias Segal as Helen’s older half-brother James with father issues, and Yvette Ganier as the faithful family servant Viney.

The final, famous scene – Helen at the water pump – is one of the most moving in Western drama, and is most beautifully staged here.

The in-the-round staging makes for some distancing, depending on one’s seat location. Derek McLane’s settings rise and fall as needed, sometimes distractingly so, with Kenneth Posner’s sensitive lighting providing further definition of time and place.

Despite a child at its centerpiece, the conflicts and emotions of this family drama are powerfully adult. There were nonetheless quite a few young people at my performance, and they were silently riveted throughout, a remarkable achievement, and a testament to Gibson’s power as a dramatist and the truly wondrous story that inspired him.

(Circle in the Square Theatre, 235 West 50th Street, 212-239-6200 or www.telecharge.com)

Friday, March 12, 2010

Next Fall (Helen Hayes Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Last year’s Naked Angels production at Playwrights Horizons of Geoffrey Nauffts’ cannily written love story about a Born Again Christian and a diehard atheist, has been transferred to Broadway where it remains an absorbing, moving and often even humorous experience.

"Next Fall" opens in a hospital waiting room as mother Arlene (Connie Ray), and friends Holly (Maddie Corman) and Brandon (Sean Dugan) anxiously await news of Luke (Patrick Heusinger) who, we learn, is lying in a coma.

Joining the anxious trio are Luke’s Tallahassee-based father Butch (Cotter Smith, not unlike George W. Bush, in manner and appearance) and Luke’s live-in partner Adam (Patrick Breen). The circumstances leading to Luke’s head injury, and the relationships among the characters come out over the course of the play. It’s not immediately clear, for instance, whether Arlene or divorced husband Butch know that Adam is their son’s lover.

In any case, Adam is excluded from the patient’s room, as Butch makes clear it is for “family only,” much as Colin Firth was excluded from his deceased lover’s funeral in “A Single Man.”)

Scenic designer Wilson Chin’s hospital setting soon morphs into a Manhattan rooftop party and the first meeting of Adam, who’s 40 and sells candles in Holly’s shop, and aspiring actor Luke. Thereafter the play flips back and forth between the hospital and the apartment Luke and Adam come to share, unbeknownst to Luke’s parents.

When Butch comes to visit, Luke takes frantically comic pains to “de-gay” the apartment, and begs Adam to vacate the premises before his father arrives. Adam insists Luke inform Butch about their true relationship, but Luke wants to put it off till “next fall.’

Of course, as fate would have it, Luke is out when Butch arrives, making for an awkward encounter between Butch and Adam. Though Adam never states his relationship to Luke, there’s a priceless knowing exchange between them when Adam serves Butch tea. “Honey?” he asks. “I’ll take mine straight,” is Butch’s firm reply.

Luke’s born again views rankle the non-believing Adam who challenges Luke on “sinning” in bed one moment and then devoutly saying his prayers the next. Adam forces Luke into an admission that hate-crime victim Matthew Shepherd’s killers might be saved, whereas Shepherd himself might not, if they, merely “accept Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Savior.”

Much of the easy audience laughs comes from Adam’s snide jibes against belief in the bible stories and an afterlife, while Luke’s parents do seem bigoted, narrow-minded, Darwin-debunking, and are, in many respects, markedly far from the Christian ideal. But Nauffts takes pains to avoid caricature.

In any case, even as Breen’s Adam is getting those knowing guffaws, it is Heusinger’s irresistibly likable Luke who earns the audience empathy in his tussles with the crotchety, hypochondriac Adam. Luke’s heartfelt plea that Adam believe so they can remain together in the afterlife is most touching, even as Adam whines, “I want you to love me more than Him.”

But though sometimes Nauffts seems to be taking cheap shots at religion, late developments in the narrative provide a satisfying balance. It turns out that the necessity of belief, in its myriad forms, is actually Nauffts’ central theme.

The delightful Corman has some wonderfully comic lines as her character serves as a constant mediator between the disparate factions. As for her own beliefs, she reveals at one point that she’s from a family of “big old Catholics.”

Ray’s sassy Arlene gets laughs, too, in the first act as she rambles on about her beloved pet Chihuahua, but her poignant discussion with Adam in the second, as they bond in the hospital’s Jewish chapel, is gorgeously written and acted. Dugan shines in a lengthy scene with Breen as Adam probes Brandon’s peculiarly individual spin on the contradictions of religion and his personal lifestyle. And Smith’s buttoned-up father has a heart-breaking beautifully acted and staged climactic moment.

Nauffts’ writing is funny, sensitive, and consistently surprising, only rarely sounding a bit stagey. Sheryl Kaller directs the play’s ever-shifting tone and tricky themes with pitch-perfect sensitivity.

(The Helen Hayes Theatre, 240 W. 44th Street, (212) 239-6200 or www.telecharge.com)

Friday, March 5, 2010

A Behanding in Spokane (Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

First, let it be said that Christopher Walken is a wonder from start to finish: quirky, eccentric, unpredictable, understated, and menacing. And that Sam Rockwell, Anthony Mackie, and Zoe Kazan, though not in Walken’s inspired league, are not exactly slouches either. This is a blue-chip cast.

But though my admiration for Martin McDonagh has, till now, been boundless, I’m sorry to report that “A Behanding in Spokane” falls considerably short of his best.

The Irish playwright’s first play set in America bears all his trademark characteristics: macabre black comedy, outrageous violence, and improbable tonal shifts, but the basic premise here just doesn’t hold water.

Walken is Carmichael, a wild-haired derelict who’s checked into a second-rate hotel. As a youngster, he lost his hand when hillbilly hoodlums held it under a roaring train, and then had the audacity to wave him goodbye with the disembodied appendage.

He has obsessively spent the intervening years trying to find it, even though he knows it would be useless to him.

A couple of pot-dealing con artists, Marilyn (Zoe Kazan) and Toby (Anthony Mackie) have sold him a shriveled black hand they claim is his. (They’ve actually stolen it from a museum.) He didn’t fall for the ruse, and they are now his prisoners.

Mervyn (Rockwell), the loony receptionist, comes up to investigate when Carmichael fires a gun, and thereafter continues to be a prying, obstinate presence, not particularly concerned about his safety. In fact, loner and outsider that he is, he wouldn’t be averse to a little excitement.

The problem with the work is that Marilyn and Toby – drawn as comically battling lovers – are dramatically implausible. When Toby, early on, attempts to leave the hotel on the ruse of returning with the “real” hand, the annoyingly clueless Marilyn gives him such grief about being left along with Carmichael, it prevents their chance to get help, the first of a string of improbable behavior from these two.

Carmichael ends up handcuffing the couple to the pipes and, while he goes off to find the putative real hand, sets a long-burning candle on a can of gasoline

A lengthy monologue for Mervyn, well performed by Rockwell, delivered in front of the curtain, vaudeville-style, is not particularly amusing, even as it conveys some necessary exposition about his character.

McDonagh’s dialogue bears his trademark style, and ultimately, a compassionate tone prevails, but his constant repetition of the f-word and its variants often seems a poor substitute for genuine wit.

John Crowley, a McDonagh veteran, knows the playwright’s rhythms and directs a well paced, intermissionless evening. Scott Pask’s set, as lit by Brian MacDevitt, conveys just the right creepy desolation.

Be warned that severed hands (of rubbery consistency) abound, but all in all, the violence in “Behanding” is mainly suggested.

(Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45 Street, (212) 239-6200 or www.telecharge.com)