There’s an odd sleight of hand in the premise of Martin McDonagh’s A Behanding in Spokane, which finishes its run at the AllWays Lounge this weekend. The psychopathic loner Carmichael (John Grimsley) is trying to find a limb he says was severed nearly three decades ago. But there’s more than dark humor in this play, and one can only wonder about McDonagh’s intentions with some of the more unsettling elements that shape the madness of the play’s absurd lost and found scheme.
The NOLA Project assembled a strong cast to deliver a cryptically funny version of what is at times a superficial and disturbing play. Carmichael meets Toby (James Bartelle) and Marilyn (Natalie Boyd) in a cheap hotel room. He wants to be reunited with his hand, and they say they have it. It’s sort of a comedy of errors, but among volatile and feckless people. The exchange is constantly interrupted by Mervyn (A.J. Allegra), a meddling and unflappable hotel desk attendant.
McDonagh has built several plays around extreme violence involving characters who seem particularly vulnerable. The NOLA Project previously produced The Lieutenant of Inishmore at Southern Rep. It is a bloodbath in which a psychotic terrorist deemed too unstable for the IRA is incensed about the loss of a beloved cat. The Pillowman features a mentally disabled man and his brother being interrogated in an unnamed, brutal police state about a series of child murders.
In Behanding, there’s a strange echo of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, as if instead of stylish Los Angeles, this were a Seattle grunge-take on low-level career criminals and cranks — who can’t stop saying the word nigger. Some of the characters have clearly racist assumptions, but it’s less shocking to hear the word so often than it is disappointing to notice that the character Toby is mostly a crass stereotype. Still, Bartelle is a very talented actor and he’s sharp and funny here, but it's a strange role.
The action is farcically mad, the play moves briskly, and it is solidly entertaining. Perhaps it’s the deluge of sordidness that masks some of the rougher points. Carmichael’s quest is as impossible as it is sympathetic (in his desire to be restored, if not the methods he uses), and he’s suitably unreasonable and angry. Grimsley animates him in appropriately menacing and brusk fashion. Mervyn is a lost soul, directionless in his life, but not without spirit, determination and some odd ideas of his own. Allegra brilliantly handles his offbeat independence and smug contrariness. Marilyn is not the sharpest knife in the drawer and just wants things to work out, and she does the best she can with what she’s got. The action thrives on the constant threat of violence, and one not only excuses but laughs at a lot of ugliness while holding out for a resolution. McDonagh keeps it just out of reach, and it’s strangely entertaining to be stuck there. But in the end, it’s a grim joke and maybe he has the last laugh. It's gripping, even if there's nothing philosophical or redeeming at stake.
A Behanding in Spokane
8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday
AllWays Lounge, 2240 St. Claude Ave.