Need a Hand?: Christopher Walken shines in A Behanding in Sp
If you happen to be in New York City sometime before the end of June, allow me to make a recommendation: go and see A Behanding in Spokane on Broadway. It's a deliriously profane, violent and over-the top new play by Martin McDonagh, the man who wrote and directed the movie In Bruges. But the best part of Behanding? It stars Christopher Walken.
The setup: a one-handed man named Carmichael (Walken) has been searching for his missing appendage for forty-seven years, ever since it was forcibly removed by a bunch of "hillbilly bastards" when he was a teenager. His quest brings him to a run-down hotel operated by an off-kilter receptionist named Melvyn (Sam Rockwell). Carmichael has arranged a meeting there with Toby (Anthony Mackie) and Marilyn (Zoe Kazan), a couple who claim to have found his missing hand. From that gloriously whacked-out premise, things go even more horribly awry.
I can't go into too much more detail without giving away some of the show's fun, but the plot twists and turns more often than a crowded 1950s dance hall. The play is a pitch-black comedy--McDonagh's specialty--and the jokes come so fast and furiously that it's hard to appreciate them all. I was laughing for the entirety of the show's 90-minute performance, to the extent that several times I had trouble catching my breath. The cast is uniformly excellent, and they're all working at the top of their game.
But the greatest draw is Christopher Walken. In recent years, Walken has become someone who is rather hard to take seriously. Between his Saturday Night Live appearances, his pretty awful taste in movie roles (he was the bad guy in Kangaroo Jack, for crying out loud), and the fact that just about everyone has tried his hand at doing an impression of Walken, it's easy to forget that he's actually a damn good, Oscar-winning actor.
A Behanding in Spokane reminds us of this fact. I have never seen a professional play in which an actor so completely sold a role. Carmichael is a rude, cruel, racist son of a bitch, but Walken makes every minute he's on stage positively shine. His trademark offbeat delivery, with random pauses and an emphasis on words that have no need for emphasis, is on full display. Instead of coming across as a shtick, Walken's delivery actually makes sense and adds to the depth of his character. Carmichael's a weird dude--after all, the guy's spent nearly fifty years looking for a severed hand. Yet with Walken at the helm, he is also strangely endearing and relatable.
Walken is also a deft comedian. He provides some of the show's biggest and longest laughs. One of the best-written and funniest scenes I have ever seen in a play involves Carmichael having a lengthy phone conversation with his elderly mother, who has just fallen out of a tree while attempting to get a balloon (don't ask).
Sam Rockwell, as Melvyn the receptionist, is similarly terrific. Melvyn has a raging inferiority complex, and he isn't quite all there. Rockwell has been in dozens of movies and plays, which is probably how he developed such an effortless smarmy charm. His banter with the other characters is a huge highlight, as is the uproariously show-stopping monologue about his love for monkeys.
Mackie and Kazan, as the couple who are supposedly bringing Carmichael his missing hand, have less to work with than the other two. Their characters spend the majority of the play handcuffed to a radiator (again, don't ask) and aren't given as many memorable moments. But that is simply the nature of their roles, and the actors do a good job giving them depth. Mackie, one of the stars of The Hurt Locker, is especially good as he grows increasingly hysterical at the insane goings-on.
It should be noted that A Behanding in Spokane is far from perfect. The plot is pretty vaguely defined, and there are several loose threads that never get tied up. It's one of those things that you love in the moment, but starts to come apart a bit when you stop to think about it afterwards. I've read or seen most of Martin McDonagh's plays, and this is undeniably one of his lesser efforts. The rest of his plays are borderline brilliant, though, so saying that Behanding is a step down from his other plays isn't necessarily too big of a knock.
McDonagh has a gift for writing marvelous dialogue, and it's on full, glorious display here. Even if the parts are better than the whole, the parts are still blazingly fantastic. It's rare to see a play that crackles this well.
Plus, Christopher Walken's in it. Did I mention that