Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Cripple of Inishmaan: Pitch Black Comedy

Watching the final scene of The Cripple of Inishmaan is simultaneously the happiest and saddest experience you'll have at the theater. I have never seen a play that is so uproariously funny and yet also impossibly cruel: after two and a half hours, you will emerge from the Cort Theatre in a daze, wishing you could watch Billy's life story for a few hours more.

Set in 1934, The Cripple of Inishmaan tells the story of Billy Claven, a young man who was orphaned as a baby and is severely crippled on one side of his body. He lives on Inishmaan, a small island off the coast of Ireland, with his adoptive aunts, Kate and Eileen Osbourne. He is tired of his boring life and fed up with the small-minded townsfolk who always refer to him as "Cripple Billy." When a Hollywood film crew arrives on a neighboring island to make a movie, Billy decides to hitch a ride with Babbybobby, a boatman who has promised to take the irascible Helen McCormick and her brother Bartley over to see the filming. Billy hopes that this trip will be his ticket out of Inishmaan, and you'll have to watch the play to see if he ever makes it.

The playwright is Martin McDonagh, the man who wrote the brilliant In Bruges (a movie I am declaring required viewing for all readers of the blog), and it is clear that he revels in writing these kinds of stories. Life is a series of ups and downs, but in a McDonagh play or screenplay, you're going to get those ups and downs in a compressed few hours and feel positively giddy at the end. The dialogue is impeccably witty and shockingly harsh, the characters seem to have hearts of gold that tarnish within minutes, the scenarios are complicated and engaging. The set is also beautifully crafted, portraying the stark but quaint beauty of this Irish island. The lighting perfectly captures the movements of the rising and setting sun against the backdrop of gentle Irish music or the sounds of waves crashing on the shore. The coziness of the general store and the bleakness of the beach combine to make you understand why so many Inishmaan residents are content to stay while Billy is so desperate to leave.

The actors in this particular production are spectacular. Most of them are Irish, with strong brogues that present a bit of a challenge. But McDonagh has expertly crafted the dialogue, making repetition a key part of why the jokes are so funny and the observations ring true, so you will quickly pick up the rhythms and follow along without any difficulty. Daniel Radcliffe does a wonderful job in the lead role as Billy Claven, but the real standout is Sarah Greene, who plays Helen McCormick. Helen ought to be a thoroughly despicable character - she treats Billy horribly (well she treats everyone horribly, but particularly Billy), is rude and wild, and has a penchant for smashing eggs. But her antics and bright red hair considerably liven up the proceedings and keep things moving quickly. While everyone on Inishmaan dithers and gossips, she's busy creating a ruckus that the island can gossip about.

The Cripple of Inishmaan is a thought-provoking and engaging piece of theater, chock-full of laughs, surprises, and indelible characters. The play ends its limited run at the Cort Theatre on July 20, so if you're going to be in New York, you need to add this production to your must-see list. There's a reason it's the most Tony-nominated play on Broadway - you don't want to miss it.

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