By Harry Forbes
Martin McDonagh’s latest -- already glimpsed on these shores in a memorable NT Live transmission in cinemas last year -- now receives an accomplished mounting by Atlantic Theater Company, one which will only add to the accolades (and, no doubt, awards stash) that the Irish playwright has been garnering for his current film, “Three Billboards Outside of Epping, Missouri.”
Finely cast here, and anchored by three members of the London production, the play is a gripping, mordantly funny black comedy that, like McDonagh’s other plays, keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout.
Set in Lancashire in the mid-1960s -- the last days during which hanging was employed for capital punishment -- the play begins with the execution of a hapless fellow named Hennessy (a properly agitated Gilles Geary) frantically proclaiming his innocence. Hangman Harry (Mark Addy) is the unyielding supervisor of the proceedings, assisted by his spineless henchman Syd (Reece Shearsmith).
There’s a fade-out after this harrowing scene, after which the lights come up two years later on a dreary pub setting (beautifully designed by Anna Fleischle who also did the apt costumes, and atmospherically lighted by Joshua Carr). Harry and his wife Alice (Sally Rogers) are the proprietors, and braggart Harry proudly recalls his days as a hangman, giving a boastful interview to pushy local reporter Clegg (Owen Campbell).
Enter a fast-talking and cocky sinister stranger Mooney (a fabulous Johnny Flynn) looking to book a room there. In short order, he’s chatting up Harry and Alice’s painfully shy, ungainly daughter 15-year-old daughter Shirley (spot-on Gaby French) with ambiguous intent.
When Shirley goes missing after failing to return after a presumed visit to a girlfriend in a mental hospital, and Syd, estranged from Harry after being fired years earlier for displaying an undue fascination with the private parts of their deceased victims -- appears on the scene with dark insinuations about a possible killer whose looks would seem to mirror that of Mooney, the scene is laid for a typical McDonagh cocktail of menace and outright violence.
To say more would spoil the delicious twists.
Original director Matthew Dunster orchestrates the suspense to maximum effect, and draws fine performances from the cast which has the full measure of McDonagh’s characteristic dialogue, absurdly commonplace and recognizably realistic even in the most outrageous circumstances.
Billy Carter, Richard Hollis, and John Horton excel as the pub’s regular denizens, Horton especially funny as a hard-of-hearing old geezer who always manages to say the wrong thing. And David Lansbury rounds out the sorry crew as a singularly laid back, not to mention indulgent, barfly.
Flynn, Rogers, and Shearsmith are recreating their original roles and are as superb here as they were in London. Brits Addy and French match their predecessors.
Maxwell Caulfield has a pivotal second act role as Harry’s nemesis, the real-life Albert Pierrepoint, England’s legendary hangman (and fellow pub owner) who bursts in at a crucial moment to berate Harry for his lack of discretion in the newspaper profile, though I must confess some difficulty in deciphering some of Caulfield’s perhaps too authentic Northern dialect.
For all the laughs, McDonagh is making trenchant points about justice, vengeance, and of course, capital punishment. But despite those heavy-duty themes, the play is, above all, juicily entertaining. A deserved Broadway transfer has already been announced, just as the original Royal Court production made its inevitable way to the West End.
(Atlantic Theater Company, Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20 Street; ovationtix.com; through March 25)
Photo: Ahron R. Foster. Mark Addy and Johnny Flynn