There was no applause for Daniel Radcliffe when he first enters “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” the first and first-rate Broadway production of Martin McDonagh’s harsh 1996 comedy. I’m sure the many Harry Potter fans in the audience would have applauded if given the chance, but director Michael Grandage’s staging discouraged such behavior – proof that a good director can hire a movie star without turning a play into a mere vehicle.
It’s undeniable that Radcliffe is the marketing draw – the poster and Playbill cover show his face three times – and unlikely that this play, which has had two previous Off-Broadway productions, would now be on Broadway without his being in the cast. But it doesn’t take a Radcliffe fan to appreciate his physically impressive performance as the character everybody else calls Cripple Billy. Radcliffe persuasively inhabits the cruelly deformed body with which Billy was born, and subtly shows the sensitive intelligence bombarded daily by the even crueler behavior of his neighbors.
Many a theatergoer is sure to find more than just Radcliffe’s performance winning, providing they are able to make two adjustments. First, we must adjust to the thick ladling of Irish accents. Then we have to submit to the dark, violent and belittling sense of humor of the playwright, who makes every character blunt-speaking and eccentric to the point of caricature. One character talks to stones, another likes to throw eggs at people, a third is obsessed with telescopes and sweets, another is trying to kill his mother with drink, yet another likes to stare at cows. They are all, as we might say by the end of the play, a wee daft.
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Is this because they all live on Inishmaan, the most isolated of the three actual remote Aran islands in Galway Bay? The play takes place in 1934, when in real life the Hollywood filmmaker Robert Flaherty traveled to the islands and recruited locals to make “Man from Aran,” a feature film disguised as a documentary. When the island’s gossip Johnnypateenmike (Pat Shortt) spreads the news, 17-year-old Cripple Billy decides this is his chance to escape the island. He hatches a plan that will enable him to attend the auditions, although it upsets several of those closest to him. Billy is the one who likes to stare at cows. He also likes to read. It’s not clear which behavior that his two aunties find odder. Aunty Kate (Ingrid Craigie) and Aunty Eileen (Gillian Hanna), proprietors of the island’s only shop – mostly stocked with peas and sweets — have been caring for Billy since his parents drowned when he was an infant.
Kate: A fool waste of time that is, looking at cows.
Eileen: If it makes him happy, sure, what harm? There are a hundred worse things to occupy a lad’s time than cow watching. Things would land him up in hell.
Kate: Kissing lasses.
Eileen: Kissing lasses.
Kate: Ah, no chance of that with poor Billy.
Eileen: Poor Billy’ll never be getting kissed. Unless it was be a blind girl
Kate: Or Jim Finnegan’s daughter.
Eileen: She’d kiss anything.
Kate: She’d kiss a bald donkey.
Eileen: She’d kiss a bald donkey. And she’d still probably draw the line at Billy. Poor Billy.
The key to the humor of this and many similar passages is in its credible, deadpan delivery, and the mastery of its rhythms. It is hard to picture a better ensemble than the nine-member cast that Grandage has put together.
Although he is loathe to admit it to anybody, Billy would love to be kissed by Slippy Helen McCormick (Sarah Greene) – so-called because, while she works for the egg-man, she is just as likely to throw the eggs as to deliver them. Helen is the meanest person in all of Inishmaan.
“It doesn’t hurt to be too kind-hearted,” Helen’s dim brother Bartley McCormick (Conor MacNeill) says to her.
“Uh-huh,” she replies. “Does this hurt?” – and she pinches him, twists his arm, then breaks some eggs on his forehead.
Helen is the most violent of the characters in “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” but, hers is not the only violence. Christopher Oram’s Depression-era costumes and rotating sets full of cracked stone walls and broken-down wood furniture, as well as Paule Constable’s stark lighting, help underscore the bleakness of their environment.
Still, Cripple is among the least gruesome of the plays by McDonagh (who is probably better known now as the director and screenwriter of the film “Seven Psychopaths.”) McDonagh’s plays include the very bloody “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” as well as “The Beauty Queen of Lenane,” and, his last foray on Broadway, in 2010, A Behanding in Spokane, with its severed hands littering the stage. That was the only one of his plays set in the United States, and its failure was instructive. “The Cripple of Inishmaan” has a plot of sorts, made up mostly of a series of twisty revelations and teases that play with the audience’s expectations, and a tentative resolution that could be called bittersweet, if it were somewhat less bitter and somewhat more sweet. But, although born and raised in London (albeit of Irish parentage), what McDonagh most has to offer in this play is the culture and characters and context and above all the language of the Irish.
The Cripple of Inishmaan
At the Cort Theater
Directed by Michael Grandage
Scenic and costume design by Christopher Oram, lighting design by Paule Constable, sound design by Alex Baranowski
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe (Billy), Ingrid Craigie (Kate Osbourne), Pádraic Delaney (Babbybobby), Sarah Greene (Helen McCormick), Gillian Hanna (Eileen Osbourne), Gary Lilburn (Doctor), Conor MacNeill (Bartley McCormick), Pat Shortt (Johnnypateenmike) and June Watson (Mammy).
Running time: About two hours, including one 15-minute intermission.
Tickets: $27 to $152
The Cripple of Inishmaan is set to run through July 20, 2014