- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Mushy images of Ireland as the land of “Riverdance,” sweetly singing tenors and twinkly-eyed natives drinking Guinness and talking blarney are dashed in Martin McDonagh’s mean and funny play, “The Cripple of Inishmaan.”

The people on this barren western Irish island in the 1930s are a callous lot. They routinely refer to a disabled young man in the village as Cripple Billy (Aubrey Deeker); middle-aged mamma’s boy Johnnypateenmike (David Marks) hands his 90-year-old boozer mother (June Hansen) a bottle and tells her “this had better be half-gone by teatime”; and Helen (Susan Lynskey), an egg-pelting, potty-mouthed, testicle-crunching vixen, kills people’s pets for money.

The black humor of “Inishmaan” is brought to bouncy and bawdy fruition in Studio Theatre’s production, directed with not a whit of “aren’t the Irish charming?” sentimentality by Serge Seiden. The lack of Gaelic schmaltz extends to the show’s production values, which lean toward the dirt-browns and grays, not to mention a maddening roar of the wind and sea that never lets up. This production emphasizes the cruelty and the violence of these people and the gallows-humor comedy that springs from their plight. It is a flinty work, but sparked by a love of storytelling, of endless yarns that inform and feed off each other.

The townspeople relentlessly taunt Billy, as if it is their right since he is disabled. Even his doting aunts Kate (Rosemary Regan) and Eileen (Brigid Cleary) can’t help themselves from taking the occasional potshot. He is also marked by an event early in his life — his parents died at sea when he was a baby, and the myths surrounding this tragedy involve whispers that they committed suicide either to save him (the insurance money would pay medical bills) or because they were ashamed of him.

He yearns for escape, which he finds in books and staring at cows. Real flight comes when an American film crew arrives to shoot a documentary about the area. Billy, Helen and her pesky brother Bartley (Mark J. Sullivan) all flee to the shoot, hoping to be discovered by Hollywood and gain passage to the promised land of America. But only Billy makes it to Los Angeles — or is this just another story the people of the island tell for amusement or comfort?

The power of storytelling is a recurring theme in “Inishmaan.” One story leads into another; each telling of the truth becomes more supple and fantastic. Some of the tales are meant to avoid pain but wind up causing more anguish in the long run.

Everyone in “Inishmaan” has the gift of gab, which keeps the play from being a total victim of its toughness and cynicism. Even the most banal of exchanges — like the small talk between shopkeepers Eileen and Kateare — are enlivened by dialogue almost farcical in its use of repetition and misunderstanding. The use of repetition will remind you of Quentin Tarantino at his most profane, while the bleak, staccato rhythms are pure David Mamet and Harold Pinter.

There is great humor to be mined from something this satirical and dark, and the actors appear to be having a grand old time. Miss Cleary is priceless as the candy-sneaking aunt Eileen, a dizzyingly physical portrayal that has her flinging holy water at the cursing Helen one minute and coddling Billy the next.

Speaking of Helen, Miss Lynskey plays her as a pure fiend, cackling with delight at every cruel deed, her fury never hampered by guilt or remorse.

Mr. Marks shows his deft way of interjecting subtle dignity into the most ridiculous of characters in his portrayal of Johnnypateenmike, and Miss Hansen proves an able partner in the defiantly sotted role of his Mammy. The young Mr. Sullivan exudes churlishness and hurt as the bullied Bartley, while veteran actor Terrence Currier reveals the canniness of age in his deadpan line-readings as the doctor.

As an antidote to all this merry crassness, Mr. Deeker provides a sharply etched portrait of pain and resentment in Billy. There is a tenderness and dreaminess to his character, but he is a tough customer as well, and his hard side crops up at the most unexpected, wrenching moments.

You love to laugh at the people in “Inishmaan,” and gasp at their casual cruelties. But you don’t want to get to know them or be around them longer than the play’s two hours — they are just too wretched. And that is the difference between amusing characters and those who live on, indelibly, in memory.***

WHAT: “The Cripple of Inishmaan” by Martin McDonagh

WHERE: Studio Theatre, 1333 P St. NW

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Through June 27.

TICKETS: $25 to $45

PHONE: 202/332-3300


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