By Shari Lifland (@shariontheaisle)
Martin McDonagh’s darkly comic, terrific new play Hangmen (recently opened at Atlantic Theater’s Linda Gross Theater) gives new meaning to the term “gallows humor.” Hangings—one legally sanctioned, one not—bookend the action, and I’ll wager that never before has an onstage execution resulted in such laugh-out-loud delight. The play’s first scene (and its most hilarious) involves the imminent hanging of a prisoner who, desperately clinging to his bedpost, vehemently protests his innocence. The dialogue, in typical McDonagh fashion, is simultaneously hysterical and tragic. A sampling:
Hangman’s assistant: “Come on, now, everybody says you’re a good lad.”
Condemned man: “They why are you f—in’ hanging me?”
Hangman’s assistant: “It will be much easier if you just relax.”
Condemned man: “It won’t be easier for me. I’ll be dead.”
Then things get personal. The condemned man complains that he’s not even being hung (“That’s ‘hanged,’ interjects one of the jailers) by the top executioner, Pierrepoint. Such criticism clearly rankles Harry Wade (Mark Addy, of The Full Monty, nailing Harry’s officious self-importance), considered “the second-best hangman in England.” But Harry’s got a job to do, and to him, the prisoner’s possible innocence or certain guilt has no bearing on the matter. The young man is summarily noosed and dispatched to the great beyond.
Fast forward two years, to 1965, the day England abolished the death penalty. The scene is a pub owned by Harry and his chain-smoking, gin-tippling wife Alice (Sally Rogers, a delight from the original Royal Court production), where an oddball assortment of barflies has gathered to hear what Harry’s got to say about the end of his era. At first Harry protests that he has no comment (fat chance, given his airbag propensities). Finally, he reluctantly agrees to speak to an insistent local newspaper reporter. Although the interview takes place privately, offstage, we later become privy to the conversation—a brilliantly funny scene where Harry pontificates about the superiority of hanging over other forms of capital punishment: The guillotine? “Too messy.” As for the electric chair, “Too often it goes wrong. There’s no need for fried onions.”
The plot thickens with the arrival of an enigmatic, mod-looking stranger named Mooney (Johnny Flynn, another gift from the original British production, in a performance that is equal parts menace and charm). Just what brings Mooney from London to Harry’s pub in Northern England? We’re never quite sure, but his intentions seem suspect. He speaks to Alice about renting a room, but becomes irate when she tries to check his references. He also behaves inappropriately toward the Wades’ moody, 15-year-old daughter, Shirley, who is upset after learning that a close friend has been sent off to a mental hospital. Mooney (who doesn’t mind being described as “menacing,” but chafes at being called “creepy”) chats her up and offers to secretly drive her to visit the hospitalized girl. We don’t know what Mooney has in mind concerning Shirley, but we can only assume it’s less than wholesome. When we learn that there’s a good chance the hanged man from scene one may actually have been innocent, with the actual killer still on the loose, the tension and stakes rise. Shirley has gone missing, and we, along with the Wades, naturally fear the worst.
McDonagh’s genius lies in his ability to make us laugh while we ponder “big” issues. He holds up a mirror to humanity—and in most cases, the reflection isn’t pretty. In Hangmen, McDonagh revisits some favorite themes from his previous theatrical and cinematic works (including his most recent, the Oscar-nominated film “Three Billboards Outside of Elling, Missouri”): man’s boundless capacity for violence, a code of ethics among criminals, and how assumptions about guilt or innocence can lead to unintended, tragic consequences. He asks us to consider whether murder is ever acceptable, be it legally sanctioned—as with government-sponsored capital punishment—or illegal (which ironically, can itself be punishable by death).
In an interview with “The Guardian” at the time of Hangmen’s original 2015 staging at the Royal Court Theatre in London, McDonagh provided some insight into the subject: “Is it right to kill someone who is an evil man—or not, as the case maybe—and what does that make the person who has to do it? Can they distance themselves from what they are doing? Is it nothing to do with them? And does it affect them?”
In Hangmen, Harry makes no value judgment about the lives he has snuffed out (he reckons he’s carried out 233 hangings in his official capacity). For Harry, the condemned person’s innocence or guilt is immaterial. His only concern is to carry out his job quickly and efficiently—a source of great professional pride. Even his unintentional hanging of an innocent man produces no remorse—it only reminds Harry how much he’ll miss his job. In the play’s last scene, Harry partners one final time with his former assistant Syd (a wonderfully jittery and obsequious Reece Shearsmith, reprising the role from the Royal Court production). Harry fired Syd some years back for what Harry considered Syd’s inappropriate comments about a particular hanged man’s exceptionally large privates. All is forgiven now, as Harry recruits Syd to act as his assistant one last time. Their reunion causes Harry to wax nostalgic for his former glory days: “I’ll miss it, I will,” he tells Syd. Syd sighs in agreement, and the two get on with their work. Despite Britain’s abolishment of the death penalty, nothing—certainly not Harry—has changed. One is reminded of Larry David’s “Seinfeld” motto: “No hugging, no learning.”
Hangmen originally premiered at London’s Royal Court Theatre, then transferred to the West End’s Wyndham Theatre. It won an Olivier Award for best play and best set design. Matthew Dunster, who brilliantly directed both the British and Atlantic productions, received an Olivier nomination for best director. As of this writing, a Broadway transfer seems likely.
Hangmen runs 2 hours, 15 minutes, with one intermission at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater, through March 7. Sets and costumes are by Anna Fleischle; Lighting by Joshua Carr; Sound by Ian Dickinson for Autograph.
Shari Lifland is a New York City-area writer who loves being in the room where it happens–on or Off Broadway.