Welcome to Broadway’s fleurs-du-mal moment, a rare bloom of funny plays on very unfunny subjects. At Circle in the Square there’s ‘American Buffalo’, about creeping crime; at the Friedman, “How I Learned to Drive”, on pedophilia; in Studio 54, “The Minutes”, on white triumphalism. Comedy is a top note in all of them, perfuming the smell of rot underneath.
But no fleur is currently as goofy as the one that opened at the Golden Theater on Thursday: ‘Hangmen’, Martin McDonagh’s rambunctiously hilarious but deeply gruesome play about the abolition of the death penalty. Or rather his stamina. For in this deeply cynical story, set in the last days of the death penalty in England, we see how ‘justified’ murder, no longer sanctioned by the state, survives by other means.
One of those other agents is Harry Wade (David Threlfall), the country’s second most famous executioner. We meet him in a chilling prologue set in 1963, as he hangs a man named Hennessy, convicted of raping and murdering a young woman. That Hennessy (Josh Goulding) faces his death and maintains his innocence is neither here nor there for Harry, who views his work as morally neutral. He just wants to send the man urgently – and does so in a nerve-wracking coup de théâtre.
Threlfall’s titanic performance in this Royal Court Theater and Atlantic Theater Company production offers the most terrifying incarnation yet of the author’s sour misanthropy. Which is saying a lot after plays like “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” and “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” portraying the busy pettiness behind big ugly acts. His Harry is, in a way, the flip side of Smike, the poor mutilated wretch he played in “The Life & Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby” in the early 1980s. Harry is also Dickensian, but more like one of Dickens’ monstrous, red-eyed lawyers: he is cruel, determined and with his dyed hair and prudish bow tie, dandyish in his self-esteem.
The law that suspended the death penalty in 1965 did not erase those traits. Most of the play is set that year, after Harry retires from public service to the pub he runs, with hangman charm, near Manchester. There he still has an imposing albeit thin skin, bullying everyone in sight: Alice, his wife who keeps up appearances (Tracie Bennett); Shirley, his 15-year-old daughter (Gaby French); and a bevy of barflies that make up a compound idiot.
But do not pity the poor executioner who cannot kill anyone; his self-pity is more than enough. Therefore, despite his “no comment” protests, it takes little persuasion for a cub reporter (Owen Campbell) to get him talking for an article timed to the second anniversary of Hennessy’s execution. Everything pours out: the vanity, the moral ambiguity, and above all the furious envy of “Albert, bloody Pierrepoint,” the “executioner number one all these years,” with hundreds more executions to his credit.
Somehow McDonagh sets these inciting events in motion and brings the core characters together without you noticing the structural work. But now he’s playing two wild cards. One is a character we met in the opening scene, but who returns unexpectedly: Syd (Andy Nyman), Harry’s mousy and possibly perverted former assistant. Syd is also burning with suppressed anger, Harry has betrayed him for some small peccadillos involving other people’s genitals.
The other is the menacing Mooney (Alfie Allen), a “spiffy young devil” (as Ben Brantley called the character in his review of the 2018 Atlantic production) and an obvious outsider with his fashionable clothes and unfathomable Oxbridge palaver. . In Allen’s convincingly reptilian demeanor, Mooney is an anarchist force, who deliberately piques everyone’s nerves with non-sequiturs and contradictions that invite an attempt to pin him down. Is he a sociopath or just a straight forward?
But he is unable to pin down and makes short work of those who try. When a suspicious detective named Fry (Jeremy Crutchley) tries his best to scare him off, it’s all about nothing:
Fry: You want to watch yourself, kid. We are not all equally friendly in the north.
Shirley: That’s me!
Mooney: That’s her.
Fry: She’s not everyone, right?
Mooney: She could be if she tried harder.
Shirley, whose own mother calls her “moody on the inside and gloomy on the outside”, knows this is pointless, but likes Mooney anyway and is soon missing.
After the gallows is built, the piece continues with the hanging of someone. Or maybe several people as there is at least a lenient fee everywhere. When Harry’s attempts to promote a glorious history rather than his true one are thwarted, so are the delusions of nearly everyone else. Only the cronies come forward, netting some free beer and a lot of excitement for their troubles.
Which makes the audience another buddy, with beer available at the theater bar. And in Matthew Dunster’s whirlwind production, we certainly get a lot of excitement, even if it’s the sickly kind that is laced with danger. (The combat direction, by J. David Brimmer, is fantastic.) Dunster also takes every possible smile out of every difficult situation; even as Hennessy resists the noose in agony, Syd tells him, “If you’d just tried to relax, you could have been dead by now.”
Logic is a backward-flowing sewer for these characters, and ethics are only useful in so far as they can be turned into excuses for bad behavior. That Harry is loosely based on Harry Allen, England’s last executioner, a man who was indeed less famous than the real Albert Pierrepoint, suggests that the diagnosis of the human propensity for violence and revenge is not fictitious or scary; there’s a reason the title is “Executioner,” plural.
This is invigorating, yet something bothered me about the piece, even apart from a few logical holes and loose knots, when I saw it downtown. While it, like most of McDonagh’s earlier work, deals in the comedy of human pride in horror – a bottomless resource – the contrast between the very serious subject matter and the Baroque construction here is more disturbing than usual. Anything with a hanging (let alone two) is hard to let go, and if you laugh as much as I did at “Hangmen,” you might find yourself asking for anything later on.
That this sense of disproportion in the Broadway production is weaker than it was in 2018 could be a clue to the answer. The cast, with only four remaining, is definitely better aligned now, and Threlfall makes a big difference. Also successfully staged for Broadway are Anna Fleischle’s sinister sets and pinpoint costumes.
But it’s more than that. Four years later, the world feels grosser—perhaps it always does—and not just because death has become much more visible in streets and neighborhoods and wars. So is the indifference of people to it, and all kinds of suffering and dishonesty. McDonagh’s cynicism feels closer to ours, or rather to us. “Hangmen” now plays less like a smart exercise and more like news, with a nerve-racking headline. Garden variety amorality is not far from violent psychopathology, it reports, or for that matter, from what we call justice.
Until June 18 at the Golden Theatre, Manhattan; hangmenbroadway.com. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes.