Review: Darkly Funny ‘Hangmen’ Full of Compelling Twists

Johnny FlynnWhat seems like an eccentric character piece becomes, in playwright Martin McDonough’s deft hands, a darkly comic thriller that is also a meditation on the justice of revenge.

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“Hangmen” Is Another Deft Dose of Poison From Martin McDonagh


When the girl goes missing, we have only ourselves to blame. Look, we walked into that theater knowing full well the sort of ultraviolent hijinks playwright Martin McDonagh likes to get up to. The moment that innocent 15-year-old came down the stairs, the only girl in Hangmen’s smoky, paneled, ’60s-era pub, we knew we were watching the sacrificial lamb tottering onto the stage. We know because we like McDonagh’s if-it-bleeds-it-leads dramaturgy. We’ve always laughed when he turns his astonishing gift for dialogue to cruelty — as he inevitably does.

McDonagh’s 2015 thriller-comedy Hangmen, now transferred to the Atlantic Theater from London’s West End, takes most of its pleasures in needling us for those expectations. McDonagh’s cynical Irish plays (The Beauty Queen of Leenane, among others) prepare us for his rudeness-as-punchline tactics, while a little movie called Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri readies us for the vague gesture at sociopolitical critique. The play doesn’t have quite the same black magic it had back home — Hangmen is scaled to be a whale-versus-squid Battle of the Bad Men, and the whale has been recast with a pussycat. But McDonagh’s impressive orchestration of voices and his confident, suspenseful structure are still there. It’s a solid night out for those who enjoy a bit of crawling dread alongside their jokes.

The set-up is simple. On the day in 1964 that Parliament finally abolishes capital punishment, the Crown’s last hangman, Harry Wade (Mark Addy), holds court in his Northern English pub. Pulling pints and giving an ill-advised interview (“He’s run away with himself!” tuts his wife), Harry keeps asserting himself as the local big cheese. He puts down his own customers, ignores his wife, Alice (Sally Rogers), insults his teenage daughter, Shirley (Gaby French), and generally gives the impression of a man who really loved his other, deadlier job. McDonagh based this character on reality — both this Harry and the original Last Hangman claim to have “never lost a night’s sleep” over their work. But then a stranger walks into the bar. Mooney (Johnny Flynn) isn’t right: He has a shaggy Beatles haircut; exhibits interest in “our Shirley”; is prone to terrifying outbursts; and seems to know a bit too much about the last man Wade hanged. Wade’s old assistant, Syd (Reece Shearsmith), shows up to voice dire warnings, but Mooney operates full and eerie and unopposed, until the play glides into sudden, violent farce.

This is the same production — director, design, some of the actors — that played in the West End. The shift to the small Atlantic Theater isn’t altogether comfortable. Continue reading