“Hangmen,” Martin McDonagh’s black comedy about an ex-executioner, which opens tonight on Broadway, had a run Off-Broadway four years ago with the same director and the same design team. But as much the same as it is, my reaction to the play has changed. My opinion has gone from a thumbs up with caveats to a qualified thumbs down.
“Hangmen” begins in a prison cell in England in 1963, when executioner Harry Wade (David Threlfall) is waiting to hang the prisoner Hennessy (Josh Goulding), who clings desperately to the metal bedstead.
“if you’d just relax, it’d be all the easier for ya,” Harry tells him.
“It won’t be easier for me,” Hennessy says. “I’ll be dead.”
Hennessy is unhappy, not just because he’s innocent, but because he’ll be killed by a “rubbish hangman,” rather than the great Albert Pierrepoint.
“I’m just as good as bloody Pierrepoint!” says an irked Harry, who whacks the prisoner with a billyclub to pry him loose. The way the scene plays out gives a more literal meaning to gallows humor.
The next scene takes place two years later, on the second anniversary of Hennessy’s execution, when a snarky, sexy, mysterious stranger named Mooney (Alfie Allen) enters the pub that Harry now owns in the North of England. Harry is no longer working as a hangman because Great Britain has banned hanging. (As explained in a full page in the playbill on the history of executions, the UK eventually abolished capital punishment entirely.) Everybody agrees that Mooney looks menacing, and his appearance on the anniversary starts to seem like more than a coincidence. We see Mooney smooth-talking Harry’s shy teenage daughter Shirley (Gaby French.) Shortly afterwards, Shirley disappears.
There’s craftsmanship in the way the playwright is able to maintain suspense in a plot full of surprises. There’s also cleverness in the dialogue, and in the wacky characters, reflecting McDonagh’s hip wit in the bad boy tradition of Joe Orton. The production design is flawless; Anna Fleischle’s costumes and especially her sets are solid. But this time around, I found “Hangmen” ultimately less than satisfying; all the caveats I expressed four years ago still exist, and now loom larger for me.
I had mentioned that some New York theatergoers had complained of the difficulty in making out some of the dialogue through the thick English accents. The complaints persist. I would surely share them had I not had the benefit of reading the published script
The biggest of all the surprises in the plot is that we remain uncertain what the full story is. (l’ll keep this vague to avoid spoilers.) I suspect this is one of the several ways the playwright is commenting on the absurdity of the death penalty, although it’s the most indirect. Such lack of clarity about who did what when and why could buttress the abolitionist argument that, given the uncertainty inherent in most crimes, no punishment should be irreversible. If that’s a point the playwright is making, it no longer feels enough compensation for the disappointing holes in the plot.
That disappointment may be exacerbated by the changes in the cast. Of the dozen actors on Broadway, only four are from the Off Broadway production. These include a trio of barflies, who are quite funny, and French as Shirley, who is quite effective. But it doesn’t include the two original leads, portraying Harry and Mooney, who more or less carried the Off Broadway show, standing out in a way that their Broadway replacements (as good as they are) do not. Now the standout for me is John Hodgkinson, who portrays Albert Pierrepoint (who was an actual famous English hangman, unlike the fictional Harry.) Albert makes what amounts to a cameo appearance, a single scene, but one in which Hodgkinson, with his impressive height and bearing, conveys a sense of dignity and authority that offers a comic contrast to the pompous, petty Harry.
As with almost all his plays, both good (“The Beauty Queen of Leenane”) and bad (“A Behanding in Spokane”), McDonagh employs a mordant humor that involves a gleeful reliance on violence bordering on the sadistic. (It may be worth mentioning that McDonagh’s use of violence in his plays is far less pointed, and more gratuitous, than in the Oscar-nominated film he wrote and directed, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”) Four years ago, I laughed at the cruel humor in “Hangmen,” even though I felt complicit in doing so. But things have happened in the world since then, and I had a rush of reactions, none of which came close to amusement, when a character in “Hangmen” is being choked, and says “Can’t breathe.”
Golden Theater through June 18, 2022
Running time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission
Tickets: $59 – $179
Written by Martin McDonagh
Directed by Matthew Dunster
Scenic and costume design by Anna Fleischle, lighting design by Joshua Carr, sound design by Ian Dickinson for Autograph,
Cast: Alfie Allen (Mooney),Tracie Bennett (Alice), Owen Campbell (Clegg), Jeremy Crutchley (Inspector Fry), Gaby French (Shirley), Josh Goulding (Hennessy), John Hodgkinson (Albert), Richard Hollis (Bill),John Horton (Arthur), winner Andy Nyman (Syd), Ryan Pope (Charlie), and David Threlfall (Harry)