Theater review: 'The Lieutenant of Inishmore' at the Mark Taper Forum
Cat fanciers beware: The plot of “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” the unruly black comedy by Martin McDonagh, hinges on a mangled kitty, and feline abuse greets us in all its gory depravity (including a shellacking with shoe polish). Violence, torture and a tidal wave of bloodshed ensue, most of it involving human beings, but animal lovers (myself among them) will have to figure out how to reconcile their hilarity with the horror of a couple of furry corpses.
Let’s get something straight: This isn’t a play for anyone squeamish about blood and (why not just say it?) stumps. By the end of this mad McDonagh farce, which opened Sunday at the Mark Taper Forum with the charismatic movie star and ever-more accomplished theater actor Chris Pine leading the merry butchery, the stage is inundated with so much carnage that Macbeth himself might wince in disgust.
When graphic extremes cross the stage, as they regularly did in the Jacobean theater, the test is whether the sadistic spree is gratuitous or related to some larger artistic vision. McDonagh’s twisted tale of revenge, set in motion by a crazed Irish revolutionary's grief over a beloved pet, does indeed have a point to make about the frenetic, tail-chasing absurdity of terrorism. Not everyone will be able to giggle their way through all the eye shootings and limb hacking, although McDonagh’s characteristically tart dialogue, with its penchant for evoking choice clichés in the most radical of circumstances, won’t make it easy for anyone to stifle the odd perverse chuckle.
In this rollicking series of Grand Guignol escapades, McDonagh seems out to top himself. Whatever restraint there may have been in “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” (in which a daughter murderously pays back her miserable old mother), “A Skull in Connemara” (involving graveyard defilement) or “The Pillowman” (gleefully depicting acts of child torture) has been tossed aside for a sort of sick slapstick.
Much as I have admired McDonagh’s melodramatic daring and Tarantino-style wit, I have stood aloof from the cult that has surrounded his every playwriting endeavor. For me, he’s always been more of an audacious tactician than a poetic visionary, and the work of his that I enjoyed the most is the 2008 film “In Bruges,” which he wrote and directed. The screen, in my minority view, seems a more natural fit for his impressive stylistic gifts.
But I’ll readily admit that the first time I saw “Inishmore” off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theater Company — in a production, directed by Wilson Milam that later moved to Broadway — I was giddy with laughter. Milam, who received a Tony nomination for his staging, directs the Taper production with the same respect for the play’s central irony of simple Irish country folk engaged in some fiendishly macabre activities. (Laura Fine Hawkes’ Gaelic homestead set serves as a kind of straight man for McDonagh’s vicious punch lines.)
If the potency of the humor has diminished a jot or two, well, few jokes are as hilarious the second time around. Milam’s ensemble hasn’t yet reached maximum cruising speed, but it’s a solid cast, headed by Pine as Padraic, deemed too extreme for the reigning Irish terrorist groups in the 1990s when the play is set, and featuring a game Zoe Perry as Mairead, a tomboyish lass with a crush on Padraic and a penchant for blinding cows with her air rifle.
When we first meet Padraic, he’s busy torturing a drug dealer (Brett Ryback) in a Northern Ireland warehouse, courteously inquiring of his victim, who has just had a couple of toenails painfully removed, whether he’d prefer to keep his right or left nipple. A phone call informs Padraic that Wee Thomas, his beloved cat, is doing “poorly” — news that prevents him from finishing the slice-and-dice job before him.
“Put Wee Thomas on the phone,” Padraic angrily demands of his father, Donny (Seán G. Griffin). “He’s sleeping? Well, put a blanket on him and be stroking him and stroking him and get a second opinion from the doctor and don’t be talking loud near him …,” he orders, promising (in as threatening manner as possible) to be on the first boat in the morning.
As we’ve already seen the massacred condition of Wee Thomas, carried into Donny’s cottage by Davey (a sprightly Coby Getzug), the long-haired simpleton brother of Mairead, who denies having run over the animal with his bicycle, we can imagine the extent of Padraic’s rampaging fury. McDonagh mingles this plot line with another involving a trio of ticked-off Irish National Liberation Army comrades (played by Andrew Connolly, Kevin Kearns and Ian Alda) who interrupt Padraic just as he’s, in his own defiantly innocent words, “in the middle of shooting me dad” for animal neglect. Clearly, this self-appointed lieutenant is too unstable even for a splinter group.
The lunatic logic of violence runs amok in a caper that makes room for an incipient romance between Padraic and Mairead, whose sharpshooting skills come in rather handy in the escalating slaughter. (Perry grows amusingly bolder as the action spirals out of control.) But “Inishmore” probably would work better as a one-act, uninterrupted by an intermission and condensed into a form more tautly commensurate with the scale of McDonagh's comic idea.
Pine’s garb and styling are a touch too Hollywood — his look is simply too gleaming for the role. But the conviction and fine-grained texture of his acting continue to impress, as does the exemplary way he’s been managing his career — one of the few young box office guns eager to enrich his talent every bit as much as his bank account.
This kind of theatrical blood sport won’t be for everyone. (Pity the crew assigned to clean up the mess after each performance.) But if a flincher like me found himself tittering with open eyes, maybe you’ll be tickled by McDonagh’s malign mirth as well.
-- Charles McNulty
"The Lieutenant of Inishmore," Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends August 8. $20 to $65. (213) 628-2772 or www.centertheatregroup.org. Running time: 2 hours.
Photos: Top: Zoe Perry and Chris Pine. Bottom: Pine and Brett Ryback. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times