The Cripple of Inishmaan
by Martin McDonagh
Directed by Garry Hynes
A Co-production of the Atlantic Theater Company and Druid (Galway)
Linda Gross Theater, New York, December 9, 2008 – February 1, 2009
Kate – Marie Mullen
Eileen – Dearbhla Molloy
JohnnyPateenMike – David Pearse
Billy – Aaron Monaghan
Bartley – Laurence Kinlan
Helen – Kerry Condon
BabbyBobby – Andrew Connolly
Mammy – Patricia O’Connell
Doctor – John C. Vennema
The 2006 Broadway production of Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore remains one of the most deliriously thrilling spectacles I’ve ever seen, and one that I’ll probably never forget. I felt plunged into an utterly amoral theatrical universe, and the grotesque violence and humor and sophisticated irony combined to generate the kind of electric bliss that I can only imagine must have been felt at the original productions of Sweeney Todd and The Threepenny Opera. Compared to Lieutenant and to McDonagh’s acclaimed The Pillowman, The Cripple of Inishmaan, currently revived at the Atlantic Theater Company in a production by Galway’s Druid Theatre, feels like a minor, less ambitious, tamer play by the Anglo-Irish master. Nonetheless, there is plenty to savor in the nuances and rhythms of McDonagh’s hilarious dialogue, which sounds like the whimsy of J. M. Synge filtered through the savage wit of David Mamet.
“Cripple Billy” Claven, living with certain physical deformities in 1934 on the rural island of Inishmaan off the west coast of Ireland, just can’t catch a break. Perpetually dodging the attentions of his overprotective foster aunts, he spends his leisure time daydreaming and staring at cows. But then an escape presents itself, as a Hollywood crew descends on the islands to film the big-budget pseudo-documentary Man of Aran. Naturally, Billy becomes determined to take part in the filming and leave the backward, narrow-minded community in which he grew up. A morally unambiguous protagonist makes for a less interesting play; Billy’s biggest vices are a lax letter-writing habit and an easy propensity towards white lies. Aaron Monaghan as Billy stays on the right side of caricature and crafts a vivid, unsentimental performance as a well-spoken young man with two unyielding arms, a hobble, a limited lung capacity, and some big dreams. To his credit, Mr. Monaghan’s Billy always seems a bit smarter and less innocent than he comes off to others, as though Billy has perfected playing the role of the sensitive, unassuming cripple boy to his strategic advantage. It is difficult to say whether it’s a lapse of the play or the production that this discrepancy isn’t really engaged in a more dramatic way.
The Cripple of Inishmaan is most pleasurable as an ensemble farce, Inishmaan being populated by an array of agitated eccentrics. David Pearse as the relentless busybody JohnnyPateenMike, who struts about the island like a puffed-up pigeon and barters gossip for groceries, is a memorable high-pitched comic presence. Marie Mullen and Dearbhla Molloy as Billy’s “pretend aunties” are wry and subtle in some of the play’s funniest exchanges. Andrew Connolly is stoic and enigmatic as the widowed ferryman BabbyBobby. Certainly the spark-emitting motor of the production is Kerry Condon as Helen, the audacious tomboy at the center of Billy’s affections who fancies herself the biggest man-eater in Ireland and constantly terrorizes her simple-minded little brother Bartley (the late-twenties-looking Laurence Kinlan, in a role that arguably might be more effective played by an actual adolescent). Ms. Condon is fierce, hysterical and charming, and her last scene with Mr. Monaghan is, in a word, adorable.
The staging—by Garry Hynes, who’d won a Tony in 1999 for her direction of McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane (Ms. Mullen was another Tony winner for that production)—is serviceable, though it stops short of fulfilling the raw potential of the themes in McDonagh’s text. Apart from a chilling image of Billy’s mangled silhouette towards the end of the play, there is little that is harrowing about these petty, desperate lives; the colorful idiosyncrasies obscure the ugliness and sadness within. Comedy-wise, the banter might have benefited from more emphatic performances – too many gems pass unceremoniously by. Note, for example, this exchange between the aunts in the first scene:
Kate: Has the egg-man been?
Eileen: He has, but he had no eggs.
Kate: A waste of time him coming, so.
Eileen: Well it was nice of him to come and not have us waiting for eggs that would never arrive.
These must be some of the most existentially deadpan lines since Waiting for Godot, but they don’t quite live up to their tragicomic possibilities with the casual treatment they’re given here. Perhaps a bigger disappointment is that this staging of a play by a master of political allegory shies away from political gesture. On our way out of the theater, in our half-facetious attempts to draw symbolism from the play, my friend suggested “Billy as Ireland.” The metaphor hadn’t occurred to me during the production—but it should have. In the opening scene, JohnnyPateenMike observes that “Ireland mustn’t be such a bad place so if the Yanks want to come to Ireland to do their filming.” His sentiment is later echoed in various forms by characters sheepishly or proudly reinforcing their national self-esteem. It’s a running joke, and a great one—this is satire, after all—but this production’s reluctance to probe or engage the odd mix of self-importance and insecurity projected by the Irish of McDonagh’s imagination is a missed opportunity.
Still, a visiting Irish company’s production of McDonagh is a rare delight. You get to enjoy some ecstatically quirky storytelling – and you know the accents are authentic.