Friday, April 25, 2014

A Transatlantic Transfer Worth Making the Journey

Review: The Cripple of Inishmaan

We're not in Hogwarts anymore.

Things are not what they seem in the solidly staged and superbly acted Broadway revival of Martin McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishmaan.  For one thing, despite a marketing campaign consisting entirely of photos of leading man Daniel Radcliffe, the former Harry Potter is absent for large swaths of the evening.  There are also a LOT of secrets being kept by the residents of Inishmaan, and while the constant string of revelations gives the show its fast pace and crackling energy, it can be difficult to keep track of which version of events is the current "truth."  Yet despite occasionally feeling like a bait and switch, The Cripple of Inishmaan is a handsomely staged dark comedy that seems especially fresh and modern in a Broadway season filled with classic dramas.

The play takes place in 1934 on the rocky isle of Inishmaan, just off the coast of Ireland.  There isn't a whole lot to do on Inishmaan, and the place is kind of a dump (one of the play's many running gags is how implicitly awful the island is, since the arrival of cripples, sharks, and Englishmen are all considered signs of the town's up and coming status).  When he learns the neighboring island of Inishmore is playing host to a documentary film crew all the way from Hollywood, "Cripple" Billy Claven sees his chance to escape his humdrum life and finally see some of the world beyond Inishmaan's shores.

Radcliffe throws himself into the role of Billy with the kind of dedication rarely seen from young Hollywood stars on Broadway.  He exaggerates his physicality to the point of grotesqueness, which provides an interesting contrast to his boyish good looks and natural charisma.  Radcliffe's innate likability makes him easy to root for, and you certainly feel for him when the other characters casually and constantly insult him (no one has a problem calling him "Cripple Billy" to his face, and seem positively perplexed when it's suggested he might not be okay with the nickname).  Radcliffe's Billy wears his geniality as a mask, and the young actor expertly allows us to glimpse underneath that smiling exterior to see the damaged, lonely individual underneath.  It's a winsome performance, and it's a shame the play doesn't allow us to see more of it.

The rest of the ensemble, all reprising their performances from the 2013 West End mounting on which this production is based, are equally well suited to their roles.  As Billy's adoptive aunts, Ingrid Craigie and Gillian Hanna have an excellent comedic chemistry that makes their scenes of commiseration a hoot.  Pat Shortt's boisterous, obnoxious blowhard Johnnypateen always brings with him a delightfully madcap energy, delivering his often ludicrous dialogue with absolute sincerity.  And Sarah Greene's wilful tomboy Helen makes for an interesting foil to Radcliffe's Billy, although she doesn't ever allow the audience to warm to her quite the way Billy does.  All of the actors find the musicality in McDonagh's harsh, profanity-laden dialogue, and the interplay between the performers keeps the evening moving at a brisk pace throughout.

Director Michael Grandage (last represented on Broadway by the underwhelming Evita revival) stages the piece with a keen eye and a steady hand, allowing the play to do the heavy lifting rather than trying to impose some kind of high-minded directorial concept.  Grandage mostly succeeds at nailing the play's mix of tones, although it feels as if the script was intended to have more bite than it currently does (which may simply be a function of the play being almost 20 years old).  The revolving set designed by Christopher Oram is impressive without being distracting, and there is a beauty to his worn and tattered costumes that makes the play's world feel lived in. 

Overall, The Cripple of Inishmaan is a welcomed addition to the Broadway season, once which reconfirms both McDonagh's prowess as a playwright and Radcliffe's status as a fine actor remarkably unconcerned with personal vanity.  This production is expertly executed from top to bottom, and although the intervening years since its original premiere may have robbed the work of some of its edge, it remains an entertaining, stimulating coming of age tale peppered with a few unexpected twists.  There are far worse ways one could spend a night in the theatre, and if a truly breakout stage performance from Radcliffe remains elusive this is certainly another strong credit on his ever-growing resume.

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