Martin McDonagh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore will make you laugh - even when you think you shouldn't. It will also make you turn away, as scenes of carnage are enacted just a few feet away in the Bang and the Clatter's intimate Sometimes in the Silence theater. It's no more real than Godzilla battling Mothra, but theater is the art of metaphor, and aesthetic distance is more than just a term - it's a condition of audience engagement.
But that's what you get when you sit down to an evening of Martin McDonagh. The young and much-feted playwright is known for his dark humor and his violence. Lieutenant doesn't deliver a sucker punch like his first and best-known work, The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Lieutenant never pretends to be anything but a blood bath from beginning to end.
Padraic is up north on Irish National Liberation Army business when his cat, Wee Thomas, is found by the side of the road with his head bashed in. The INLA is a splinter group of the IRA - formed by those who disagreed with the ceasefire of 1972. In more recent times, they have waged war on drug dealers. Sure enough, when we first see Padraic, played by BNC co-founder Sean Derry, he is torturing a drug dealer. But a call from his father, telling him that Wee Thomas is "poorly," transforms him from a psychotic madman to a sentimental (but still psychotic) pet lover who races home ready to save and ultimately avenge what his father tells us is "his only friend in the world."
McDonagh has been justly praised for his dialogue, his brilliant and quicksilver blending of the light and the dark. But he has been criticized for taking cheap shots and for building his work around an Irish stereotype that has no basis in experience, particularly not his own. McDonagh was born in England of Irish parents. When his mother and father moved back to Galway, he and his brother stayed behind. Young Martin was on the dole at 16 and spent his days watching the soaps. His work has been described as a "peculiar fusion of the work of John Millington Synge with the modern drama of Harold Pinter, David Mamet and British television comedy."
This is a nice tight production with some bloody wonderful special effects, executed under Sean McConaha's direction with perfect timing. Derry achieves just the right mix of brooding darkness and mawkish sentiment. D. Michael Franks delivers a fine performance as Donny, Padraic's deadpan Da, and Daniel Taylor is memorable as Christy, a fellow member of the INLA. Bethany Taylor's hauntingly sweet voice keeps reminding us that it's all part of "the patriot's game," but she's not quite scary enough for the role of Mairead. The 16-year-old INLA wannabe has got to be clueless about the carnage she's willing to perpetrate. Bethany is a little too intelligent, a little too normal for this particular role.
The bottom line is that violence is no joke, and McDonagh's stagecraft - brilliant though it may be - cannot make it so.
The Lieutenant of Inishmore Through October 19 BNC Sometimes in the Silence theater 224 Euclid Ave. 330.606.5317