‘Second-best’ hangman leads McDonagh’s black comedy play


There are few writers that can cross film and theater as seamlessly as Martin McDonagh, whose writing remains one of the tightest and best in British theater. The writer of award-winning films In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, is a veteran of the stage. His latest play, Hangmen, currently running through March 7, is a keen reminder of that fact.

It should be noted that McDonagh’s plays do not always resemble the films that he created, taking on vitalities of their own that would be very difficult to reproduce on camera. McDonagh’s plays are less like the black comedies they are usually marketed as, and more like situations where awful things occur. These awful things just happen to be absolutely hilarious and satirical in a very British, and human way.

Transferring from the Royal Court Theatre in London to the Atlantic Theater Company, Hangmen takes place in the pub of Harry Wade, the second-best hangman in England, on the day hanging is abolished in 1965.

Best not to point out the “second-best” title, however, lest one wants to receive an earful from Harry about how his rival, Albert Pierrepoint, only has a higher number because he hanged a bunch of Nazis at Nuremberg. Harry, however, has not been hanging for a while and has happily retired to running his pub in Oldham.

He is a man who wants to be left alone with his pub, his beer, his friends, his strict code about how to treat the dead and his philosophy on execution. Hanging, after all, is the most respectable method of execution in Harry’s eyes. The hangman is played by Mark Addy with enough personality to flood a room.

Filling the pub is Harry’s beleaguered and equally loud wife Alice, their “mopey” teenage daughter Shirley, police inspector George Fry and the pub regulars: Charlie, Bill and Arthur. Harry’s pub is a place where everyone knows each other and where strangers are a rarity.

Enter Mooney, played with delightful creep by Johnny Flynn, who puts the “strange” in stranger. Mooney’s presence is a debilitation in the world of Harry, and his taste for peanuts and distaste for Northern beer puts unpleasant crinkles in the pub owner’s life.

With McDonagh’s writing, it can only be expected for things to go from unusual to chaotic in a short amount of time.

With invigorating direction by Matthew Dunster, Hangmen is a masterclass in avoiding predictable plots and creating boisterous characters.

There is never a boring or dull moment in the production as viewers are either hit by a solemn realization or a witty anecdote from the play’s characters.

There is something refreshing about seeing humor on stage that does not assume a lack of understanding on the part of the audience, who certainly does not need to come from England to get all the jokes regarding who drinks what kind of alcohol.

Action in the show seems to be reset rather than deflated every time there is a segue to another long, but ultimately fulfilling, subplot of a subplot. The tension Hangmen has gives the play a vivacity modern drama truly needs right now.

The tension also makes the 135-minute runtime feel like a breeze that begs for more. An extra joke from Harry as he fills another pint for his regulars would not be minded, nor would another sly, devilish remark from Flynn’s Mooney, whose presence made him one of the standout characters in this production.

Mooney strikes viewers as one of the most compelling villains on stage, not for outright menace or for some kind of twisted plot — though he certainly has elements of both — but for the sheer Machiavellian skill he employs in manipulating everyone around him with the tiniest of phrases.

It becomes possible to empathize with Mooney when he has a final confrontation with Harry, who finally snaps in the only way the hangman truly can.

Yet, in classic McDonagh style, questions of responsibility, moral action and justice are raised through the intensely blackening humor of the script. One can joke about how the innocent may be robbed, but the situation is different for the one who does the robbing.

Hangmen alternates between subtle and more direct humor, the latter coming in such quick strokes that it did become a worry as to whether the darker story Hangmen tried to tell would be drowned in a myriad of one too many one-liners. Thankfully, McDonagh never overdoes it unless he absolutely feels like he can, which he does with masterful precision. Few writers can pull a laugh out of the gasp of shock, followed by even more laughter at an even darker joke.

The world that McDonagh’s characters occupy is no less dangerous or realistic than the real world, which is probably what makes it not only deeply enthralling in its sadism, but downright enjoyable. The play takes place in 1965, and is meant to be told in that framing.

Essentially, the time and place are what make everything gel so well without melting.

McDonagh’s world captures the essence of mid-20th century England in a raw but humorous way without being too cheesy, dark and overbearing.