Martin McDonagh Proves Even Capital Punishment Is Fit for Comedy

Director Matthew Dunster does a masterful job conducting his lavishly talented ensemble so that each member of this motley crew is duly served.

Alfie Allen and David Threlfall in ‘Hangmen.’ Joan Marcus

Does anyone make comedy blacker than Martin McDonagh? 

For more than 20 years, the author of such contemporary classics as “The Pillowman,” “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” and “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” — also known to film fans as the screenwriter and director of “In Bruges” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” — has made us laugh when it feels most inappropriate to do so. 

The playwright has also challenged social and moral hypocrisy, all while spinning some of the most thrilling tales to unfold in this century.

“Hangmen,” Mr. McDonagh’s first play to open on Broadway in eight years, easily ranks with his best work. Hilarious, searing, and poignant, the play presents a savage indictment of capital punishment without ever stooping to preach — a practice foreign to Mr. McDonagh.

Over two acts we meet an array of brilliantly crafted buffoons, among them the titular executioner (and later a couple of colleagues and rivals), as they confront changing times. Set in northern England in the mid-’60s — the first scene, a sort of prologue, documents a (fictional) 1963 hanging that will become relevant to the plot — the play finds the executioner, Harry, coming to terms with the abolition of the death penalty in his country.

Stripped of the vocation he has relished, Harry holds court in the pub he runs with his wife, Alice, boasting of his exploits while refusing to indulge his cronies with legal opinions. (“I keep me own counsel,” he declares pompously.) His complacency will eventually be shaken, though, by two visitors: a newspaper reporter who knows just how to push Harry’s buttons, and a mysterious stranger from London.

Harry takes an instant dislike to the latter, a nattily dressed young man named Mooney. Alice is initially less wary, though — and Shirley, the couple’s shy, 15-year-old daughter, is downright fascinated, even after Mooney tells her that he strikes most people as “menacing.”

Brought to bewitching life off-Broadway and in Britain by Johnny Flynn, Mooney is reintroduced here by an equally superb Alfie Allen, a “Game of Thrones” alum and one of three actors replacing original Broadway cast members who became unavailable when the production was delayed for two years by Covid. (Dan Stevens appeared as Mooney during initial previews in 2020.) Mr. Allen brings to the role the perfect combination of, indeed, menace and scrappy sexual charisma — rather evocative of a young Malcolm McDowell — making him as intriguing as he is unsettling. 

Like every character in “Hangmen,” Mooney has his own comedic energy, and director Matthew Dunster does a masterful job conducting his lavishly talented ensemble so that each member of this motley crew is duly served. David Threlfall’s uproariously foolish Harry is given an ideal foil in Jeremy Crutchley’s drier Inspector Fry, the most patently sober and sensible of the pub regulars — though that’s reaching a low bar.

John Horton is pitch-perfect as the eldest in the gang, Arthur, endowed by age or sheer knuckleheadedness with a knack for saying exactly the wrong thing at precisely the wrong time. Andy Nyman shrinks deliciously into the role of Syd, Harry’s cowardly former cohort, and John Hodgkinson has a priceless scene as the more imposing hangman Albert Pierrepoint, the one character in the play actually lifted from history.

Tracie Bennett and Gaby French prove equally resourceful as the two women who figure into the plot. Stage veteran Bennett makes Alice’s own foibles belly-laugh-worthy while establishing a certain bristly shrewdness that distinguishes her from the blokes. Ms. French, a star in the making, is as hysterical as she is adorable, and ultimately touching, as Shirley, the play’s most sympathetic character.

If there are certainly no heroes in “Hangmen,” there really aren’t villains either; for all the grisly events referenced (and demonstrated, briefly), Mr. McDonagh is most concerned with making us laugh at inanity, even at injustice. And his timing, interruptions notwithstanding, couldn’t be better.

The New York Sun

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