Treading on the lighter side of human frailty

Alex Pollock (left) as Mervyn and Gordon Joseph Weiss as Carmichael in the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater production of “A Behanding in Spokane.’’ Alex Pollock (left) as Mervyn and Gordon Joseph Weiss as Carmichael in the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater production of “A Behanding in Spokane.’’ (Jeff Zinn)
By Terry Byrne
Globe Correspondent / June 14, 2011

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WELLFLEET — “A Behanding in Spokane’’ opens with a bit of muffled grunting and a gunshot, followed by the gunman’s phone message to his mother: “All is well here. Hope all is well there.’’

Welcome to playwright Martin McDonagh’s latest and lightest farce, now getting a superb production on Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater’s intimate Harbor Stage.

McDonagh, who has taken audiences into the bleak and bitter world of family dysfunction in “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,’’ the heart of cruelty in “The Pillowman’’ and the longing for escape into fantasy in “The Cripple of Inishmaan,’’ puts aside any deeper interest in human frailty and instead delivers a wild and crazy tale that’s just plain fun. At some level, “A Behanding in Spokane’’ feels like a challenge the playwright gave himself: What can you do with a one-handed man in a seedy hotel room in a random American town?

McDonagh gets stuck several times on where his story should go, and has his characters deliver long, expository speeches to maneuver out of some tight corners. Director Jeff Zinn, however, smartly guides his quartet of actors to deliver their lines in a straightforward, realistic tone, preventing McDonagh’s madness from spinning completely out of control.

The plot follows Carmichael (Gordon Joseph Weiss), who has somehow landed in the hotel as one more stop on his 27-year quest to recover his hand, the hand some “hillbillies’’ chopped off at a train track in Spokane, Wash. (hence the made-up word “behanding’’ in the title). We pick up the story while Carmichael is in the midst of a rendezvous with a hapless pot dealer named Toby (Mack Exilus) and his girlfriend, Marilyn (Amanda Collins), who have come up with a hand they hope to sell in the hopes of making a quick buck. Not surprisingly, it all goes wrong.

But forget the story line, because “A Behanding’’ is simply an opportunity for the Irish McDonagh to try out American idioms and stereotypes. His dialogue, which is littered with expletives and racist, homophobic, and sexist insults, relies on the performers to deliver their lines with humor rather than hatred.

Weiss, as the one-handed Carmichael, delivers a spritely madman who tempers his sinister side with concern for his mother, an offstage character who provides a hilarious diversion from the action. When Carmichael flops down on the hotel room bed for a long phone chat with her, it’s impossible to fear him.

As the foolish dealers, Collins and Exilus ground the play in a silly spoof of a relationship, managing to call each other “honey’’ even as they face the disastrous end of their con and possible death at the hands of a psycho.

But the scene-stealer here is Alex Pollock, who plays the nerdy speed freak Mervyn, the hotel’s reluctant receptionist. Pollock not only delivers the play’s best monologue — a wild rant that ricochets from a fascination with high school rampages to a weird obsession with gibbons — but also creates a receptionist loaded with nervous twitches, self-conscious shuffles, and misplaced swaggers that are deliriously funny.

Although in classic McDonagh style, body parts do fly and danger is near, Wellfleet’s “A Behanding in Spokane’’ is always giddy rather than gruesome.

Terry Byrne can be reached at

A BEHANDING IN SPOKANE Play by Martin McDonagh

Directed by Jeff Zinn.

Set, Ted Vitale. Lights, Bridget K. Doyle. Costumes, Anne Miggins.

At: Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater Harbor Stage, through July 2. Tickets: $29. 508-349-9428,