London-born Martin McDonagh has been a hot playwright in recent years, and for good reason. Filled with sharp humor, sudden violence, and a flair for language like Mamet with a thick Irish brogue, his work has a knack for making the unspeakably grim seem hilarious.
Previously staged by TheatreWorks in 2000, The Cripple of Inishmaan is the first play in McDonagh’s Aran Islands Trilogy, with The Lieutenant of Inishmore and The Banshees of Inisheer. Not to be confused with his Galway Trilogy. Then there’s The Pillowman, which recently closed at Berkeley Rep, and is the only one not set in Ireland. Having supposedly written all seven in 1994 at age 24, he has since moved on to film work.
McDonagh’s snappy patter in thick, profanity-laced dialect is the star of the show in Cripple, set around the filming of Robert J. Flaherty’s 1934 documentary Man of Aran, and though the comedy is very dark you can’t help but be taken in by the roguish charm of casual discussions about priests playing grabass or trying to get one’s mother to drink herself to death.
Fortunately, the dialogue flows nicely in the Wilde Irish production helmed by artistic director Stephanie Courtney-Foss, and several of the actors being Irish themselves certainly doesn’t hurt. The Berkeley City Club’s small theater in the round is perfect for the cramped quarters of the village shop, and Jacinda Johnston’s threadbare costumes and Mary Pingree’s cluttered set evoke the deprivation of the isolated islands.
Eddie FitzGerald gives a sense of the aching heart and sullen heartlessness of Cripple Billy Clavin, hunched over like Richard III, though his desperate, poetic soliloquy is a bit (or “biteen,” as the characters say) garbled. The scenes often drag between Esther Mulligan and Breda Courtney as Billy’s two aunties, except one in which they work themselves from worry to grief to giddiness to seething resentment in the space of a few minutes, but usually they have a more lively character to play off.
Andrew Sa is amusingly snooty as young Bartley McCormick, always rhapsodizing about telescopes and American candies, while Bryn Elizan Harris is all sass and swagger as his sister Helen, the foul-mouthed and violent local beauty. Arthur Scappaticci captures the rough humanity of BabbyBobby Bennet, and you can see how much Howard Dillon’s infuriating professional gossip Johnnypatteenmike McDougal relishes forcing folks to endure his more boring news before getting to the good stuff. Like these yarns he tells, even when the performances aren’t entirely believable they’re often funny enough that you don’t mind.