Many Broadway plays are intensified and improved when they arrive at a Chicago storefront. Not so Martin McDonagh's "A Behanding in Spokane" — now in its Chicago premiere at the Profiles Theatre under the direction of Rick Snyder — which worked a great deal better when seen from farther away.
There are several reasons for these circumstances. This isn't a typical work from the Anglo-Irish author of such zesty, character-driven fare as "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" et al; rather, it's something of a spoof, a self-aware homage to noir Americana. It feels like this brilliant dramatic structuralist got bored on some film set — or some wet Sunday afternoon — and came up with the preposterous idea of basing a play around a one-handed dude who spends 47 years looking for his missing mitt, the appendage having been severed by a fast-moving freight train as the arm of its unlucky owner was being held over the tracks by hoodlums unknown.
In the play, set in a Spokane flea-pit hotel, this Carmichael, played by Darrell W. Cox, is dealing with an entrepreneurial pair of young Spokane degenerates (Sara Greenfield and Levenix Riddle) who apparently are in the hand-recovery business. They claim to have recovered his severed body part, but may in fact have substituted the paw of a different, unlucky dude.
McDonagh works in a series of tension-inducing situations involving this trio and various interpolations from the suitably weird hotel receptionist (Eric Burgher). Most significantly, when Carmichael goes out to check on the dubious heritage of the hand, he rigs up a delayed-detonation bomb involving a candle and a can of gas.
You don't have to believe much in "A Behanding," which appeared on Broadway in 2010 with Christopher Walken as Carmichael, but you do have to buy into the lethal qualities of that bomb. You struggle with that here, just as you struggle to believe in the legitimacy of various severed body parts that show up in this production. It's tough, when the darn contraption is jerry-rigged only a few feet from the audience, and all those hands are little more than an arm's length away.
In the Broadway original, "Behanding" was staged in a moody, noir, semi-satirical fashion. The silver-haired Walken, embracing his movie persona with meta applomb, wandered through a dark dreamscape of metal fire escapes and flickering neon. Mostly (but not entirely) by necessity, Snyder's Profiles production substitutes in standard storefront realism. There are some moments that work (the promisingly potent Greenfield and Riddle throw themselves into their unlucky characters to lively effect), but the play doesn't support such an approach easily. Mostly irony-free, this Chicago production misses much of the humor, and the characters feel like the consequence of intensely layered acting, when they need, I think, to float more easily in the imagination.
Cox, who feels off his usually stellar game here, seems to internalize the character of Carmichael. Rather than embracing his scary theatricality — which is, I think, the way he is supposed to come off — the miscast Cox creates a stooped, elusive, grungy kind of fellow. It's all typically intense, and not without interest, but it doesn't jive with McDonagh in this particular mood.
When: Through Dec. 4
Where: Profiles Theatre, 4147 N. Broadway
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $35-$40 at 773-549-1815