Like int’ Old Days, or Not

The problem with being an enfant terrible is that eventually you grow up.  Martin McDonagh, the angry young man who banged out four plays in two years in his late twenties, is now nearing fifty.  The cynicism is still there; so is the black comedy, the moral ambiguity, and the penchant for spontaneous violence.  But the anger is gone, I think, and Hangmen, his first new play since 2010, feels deflated as a result.

It’s 1965 and Great Britain has abolished hanging.  Harry Wade (Mark Addy), a retired executioner who now runs a pub with his family, serves a group of regulars and plays coy with a reporter (Owen Campbell) looking for a comment.  “I like to keep me own counsel,” he says several times before inevitably yielding to the temptation to talk.  Meanwhile, a sinister Teddy Boy, Mooney (Johnny Flynn), darkens his doorstep and soon disappears with his daughter (Gaby French).  Mooney is straight out of Harold Pinter, exuding a politeness that can at any moment turn murderous.  When an accomplice calls him “creepy,” he snaps back with a correction: “Menacing, not creepy.”

There is no doubt that Mr. McDonagh is a talented writer.  Hangmen is full of clever, funny lines.  It is never boring and in at least one instance terrifically theatrical.  The stage even has a working set of taps.  But the whole is somehow less than the sum of its parts; it feels more like a vehicle for those funny, clever lines than a cohesive narrative with a clear purpose.  Perhaps there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s not as if we’re overwhelmed by playwrights with acid pens.  But from Mr. McDonagh, I expected more.

Hangmen runs through March 25th at the Linda Gross Theater.  336 W. 20th Street New York, NY.  2 hours 15 minutes.  One intermission.

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