Some existential energy was left behind at the Cort following the recent departure of “Waiting for Godot,” and it’s somehow been absorbed by the new production of Martin McDonagh’s “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” now enjoying a Broadway transfer with megastar Daniel Radcliffe as Billy, the damaged dreamer of the title.
McDonagh’s dark comedy, previously seen in 1998 at the Public, and a decade later at the Atlantic, has a plot that could be summarized this way: “Life sucks, and I'd probably be better off dead. But oh, a pretty girl may just like me, so perhaps I’ll stick around.” We’ve all had days that are as touch-and-go—certainly, Ian McKellen’s Gogo could relate, no?
“The Cripple of Inishmaan” is a coming-of-age comedy, and a very Irish one, so it’s not until after the deaths (Billy’s parents, and, perhaps, Billy himself) and the drinking (town gossip Johnnypateenmike is intent on doing in his 90-year-old mammy with whiskey) that it occurs to you: I’m laughing a frightful amount. I credit that to the top-notch cast, rather than the play, which is a collection of monologues and interactions characterizing states of despair more than it is any plot-driven narrative.
Indeed, everyone in Inishmaan has some hardship or another. Young Bartley McCormick (Conor MacNeill) is a target for older sister Helen (Olivier Award-nominee Sarah Greene, gleefully sadistic), a—pardon the completely fair cliche—fiery redhead so alluring that priests expose themselves to her with alarming regularity. Helen is also the unattainable object of Billy’s affections. Babbybobby (Padraic Delaney), who apparently owns the only boat in town, recently lost his wife to TB, an ailment that factors into the plot.
The most powerful man in Inishmaan, meanwhile, is that gabby Johnnypateenmike (Pat Shortt, terrific), whose news is sometimes reliable and sometimes not, but always comes with a price. The cast is intact from a West End run last summer, directed then as now by Michael Grandage.
Set in 1934, “Inishmaan” begins in a country shop run by Billy’s two adoptive aunts, one a cauldron of rage (Gillian Hanna, delightful in her dourness), the other a spacey, matronly figure who talks to stones (Ingrid Craigie). “Cripple Billy,” as everyone regrettably calls the young man, has picked up on word that a Hollywood director is filming on the neighboring island of Inishmore. (That crew is, in fact, making “Man of Aran,” a real 1934 British “ethnofiction” about life on the islands off the western shore of Ireland.)
Billy, whose self-loathing stems from a long-held belief that his parents committed suicide in an effort to avoid responsibility for him, concocts an insensitive and ultimately successful plan to meet the moviemakers. To the young man’s surprise, he’s whisked off to Hollywood for a screen test, leaving the townsfolk, and especially his fretful aunties, to spend months worrying over his fate. McDonagh toys with us quite a bit on that front, to different extremes.
Radcliffe is appealing in a role that must be extraordinarily uncomfortable to play. He’s constantly wheezing, and one damaged leg remains stuck out, straight as a board. For any movement around the stage, which includes climbing over walls in Christopher Oram’s evocative turntable set, he must oblige that impediment.
“How to Succeed…” and “Equus” reminded us that Broadway audiences will always be endeared to Radcliffe, who grew up before our eyes, and we support him unapologetically in his attempts to escape the bitter tedium of Inishmaan. He has no more stage time than the rest of this gaggle of misfits, and it struck me as a bit off that he took an individual bow at the curtain call—not quite British restraint, but an homage to the mere fact it takes his name to fill the house for this show.
The homespun and lyrical dialogue is vintage McDonagh. Watching the completed “Man of Aran,” newshound Johnny chimes in with one of the play’s running jokes: “Ireland mustn’t be such a bad place” … as in “Ireland mustn’t be such a bad place if sharks want to come to Ireland.”
McDonough is responsible for some of the darker material to appear on the Rialto in recent years (“The Pillowman” et al), and “Inishmaan” is considered a piece that shows he has “a sentimental side.” The play ends on a note that will make you question whether that’s true—we are reminded of life’s fragility going out, as we were going in. It’s not a play that will appeal to everyone, but you couldn’t ask for a more first-rate group of actors to join you for a couple of hours in a village full of eccentrics.
“The Cripple of Inishmaan,” through July 20 at The Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St. Tickets: $27-$142. Call Tele-charge, 212-239-6200.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn