Despite Martin McDonagh’s reputation as a master of the grotesque—and for all his smashed eggs, bloody bandages, fatal disease, and the spastic, limping title character himself–The Cripple of Inishmaan (now playing at the Atlantic's Linda Gross Theater through March 1) is a rosy play. If the cripple, Billy (Aaron Monaghan), could hum a few bars, he might even be in contention for next year’s best musical—if you don’t believe me, remember comparable limitations never stopped Porgy from singing at the Met. If the playwright is more innocent here than he might have suspected while writing the piece (it was first produced in 1997), its ease of construction is hardly from the pen of the clueless. Working without waste McDonagh puts his west Irish locals on the road to fame–and just when we expect despair, he interjects the relief of joy (if you dare, try not to smile at your neighbor at the end of act one). As Fintan O’Toole similarly notes in a March 6, 2006 New Yorker profile of the author, “[McDonagh’s] drafts reveal a sure grasp of the mechanics of dramatic narrative—an understanding of how to move characters in and out of scenes gracefully, plant crucial information in seemingly insignificant scenes early on, and, conversely, hide information by presenting it at times when the audience is distracted by a joke or an episode of violence.”
You even wonder if he’s ever met Stephen Sondheim. Hilton Als regretfully wrote recently, also in The New Yorker, that “Sondheim’s far-reaching sonic and lyrical brilliance is sometimes undercut by weaknesses in the books for his shows . . .” It’s not the first time the point has been made—and both Sondheim and McDonagh, attracted to darkness, are ready for theatrical game changers. Imagine the meat pies from the boys who brought you Sweeney Todd, Assassins, and Into the Woods, The Pillowman (don’t forget the fairy-tale monologue where a child’s toes are cut off by the Pied Piper) and The Lieutenant of Inishmore. McDonagh, the easy spinner and architect of tall tales, says he won’t write another play, “I think I’ve said enough as a young dramatist.” If he’s ever ready to take the next step, though, Sondheim, the great American artistic genius who himself learned from great American artistic geniuses–including Oscar Hammerstein II and Leonard Bernstein, of course–would be taking a leap into the art of the Irish diaspora: the music of The Pogues and the Dubliners as background. It might even be a challenge to jump into the Celtic twilight and get it right (recall the Irish disaster genre itself: Pirate Queen and Ryan’s Daughter to name two) and give Sondheimian complexity, insight, and resonance to McDonagh’s surety of form. It’s dangerously hard, though–certainly part of the humor in The Cripple of Innishmaan is that one of our legendary directors, Robert Flaherty, got his 1939 classic movie The Man of Aran wrong.
Where Flaherty sees the battle of man against nature on Ireland’s rugged west coast, McDonagh sees pretense enough to get the director ejected from Oprah’s couch (although in the credits Flaherty does list his actors as characters). Where Flaherty sees mythic strength in survival: fishing, crabbing, egg and soil gathering, and shark hunting for lamp oil, McDonagh sees boredom in neatly stacked cans of peas, runaway animals, and daffy absurdist dialogue about “Yalla-Mallas” and a character named BabbyBobby. According to the theatre program, “[The Man of Aran] depicted the supposed ‘daily life’ of characters living on the Aran Islands off the western coast of Ireland. Many situations were fabricated, such as one in which fisherman are almost lost at sea on a shark hunt.”
Whose vision is right? The correct answer can probably only be decided by a bar brawl. Flaherty’s was a docu-drama of a certain time, which took over two years to make–a faraway precursor to reality TV where his local cast played versions of themselves, not themselves exactly; the director probably didn’t imagine he had to be very literal in the pursuit of entertainment and meeting his own audience’s expectations (he’d also probably have gotten nailed if he presented the Irish as nebbishes, the way The Cripple of Inishmaan does). McDonagh, however, does protect his creations. Although they can’t always be shielded physically, the playwright goes to the wall for their emotional defense. It’s actually an odd stance. Recall that our playwriting 101 rulebook tells all budding playwrights that we should be putting the characters in jeopardy and watching them suffer—but McDonagh loves his too much. Instead of offering blood-curdling catharsis regarding the cripple’s dead family, he does something smarter. Like any good parent, he knows not to tell the kids the truth about Santa.
Elsewhere McDonagh has his dramatis personae taking part in making the movie, being whisked off to California, regaining sanity after talking to a rock, receiving a belt and a kiss at about the same time, turning slut to nun–and even, like Christ the Lord, undergoing a resurrection. The fine ensemble of actors for Druid Theatre Company’s production, directed by Garry Hynes, shows us the local color Flaherty missed: an impatient tough girl (Kerry Condon), the gossip who can keep a secret (David Pearse), two aging sisters who care for the cripple (Dearbhla Molloy and Marie Mullen), a bedridden drunk (Patricia O’Connell), a none-to-smart country lad with an interest in telescopes (Laurence Kinlan), a local fisherman (Andrew Connolly), and the country doctor (John C. Vennema).
Flipping between the opposing views of Flaherty and McDonagh, it’s intriguing to see where they overlap. Both use a young character who wants to go out to sea in two powerful, analogous moments—in the film, a boy is rejected by his father regarding a venture on the currach; in The Cripple of Inishmaan, the title character is finally allowed to go to The Man of Aran filming with the hope of being cast. It’s also interesting to see McDonagh’s characters watch The Man of Aran—unimpressed, unresponsive to Flaherty’s cinematic poetry, it doesn’t take long for them to move on to other issues of the day.
Maybe there are simply too many Irelands to project onto: the mystical, romantic, mythic . . . David Lean felt that if he had only added a line, when his title heroine fell in love in Ryan’s Daughter, akin to her now “seeing the world through rose-colored glasses,” the movie would have been clarified. Likewise, foreigners especially, may fail to see the glasses they are wearing in their love of the old sod—those closer to the hearth, like McDonagh, see the little people and rain.
–Bob Shuman (c) 2009
THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN
EXTENDED TO MARCH 1st!
DECEMBER 9 - MARCH 1
a co-production with Druid
by MARTIN McDONAGH
directed by GARRY HYNES
CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN
Presented by Atlantic Theater Company
Atlantic Theater Company at the Linda Gross Theater
336 West 20th Street
New York, NY &nb sp;10011
ATLANTIC THEATER COMPANY and DRUID
MARTIN McDONAGH’S CRITICALLY ACCLAIMED
THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN
EXTENDED FOUR WEEKS THROUGH MARCH 1, 2009
THE CRITICS HAVE SAID:
"A first rate production. A subversive charmer that shows off McDonagh's skills as an expectation-thwarting master of knotted yarns. Cripple is driven by the inconsistencies
of human behavior, which echo this equally sad and funny plays whiplash reversals of mood and fortune. It's hard to imagine an interpretation that makes this plays singular melding of
sentimentality and savagery feel more organic than this one." – Ben Brantley, New York Times
“A darkly hilarious and surprisingly moving comedy. McDonagh celebrates and slyly spoofs a full parade of Irish stereotypes, but with a great deal of heart. In honoring them, he has created a unique theatrical offering all his own.” – Michael Kuchwara, Associated Press
“Flawlessly staged and superbly acted.” – Frank Scheck, New York Post
“A real gem. A brutal and satisfying fable about the lies people tell, truths they hide, and the capacity for desire and disappointment.” –
Joe Dziemianowicz, Daily News
“Hurry, hurry, hurry to the Atlantic, where McDonagh's work of tragicomic genius, is easily the funniest play now in New York. Actually, side-splitting, rib-tickling, knee-slapping is more like it -not to mention heartbreaking and soul-crushing.” – David Finkle, Theatermania
Atlantic Theater Company and Druid are proud to announce a four week extension of Martin McDonagh’s hit dark comedy THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN, which will now play through Sunday, March 1st, 2009 Off Broadway at Atlantic’s Linda Gross Theater (336 West 20th Street).
The limited engagement, originally scheduled through February 1, 2009, began previews on December 9 before opening to unanimous critical acclaim on Sunday, December 21, 2008.
Directed by Tony Award® winner Garry Hynes (The Beauty Queen of Leenane), the celebrated cast of THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN transfers intact following a UK tour, and features Kerry Condon, Andrew Connolly, Laurence Kinlan, Dearbhla Molloy, Aaron Monaghan, Tony Award® winner Marie Mullen (The Beauty Queen of Leenane), Patricia O’Connell, David Pearse and John C. Vennema.
Set in 1934 on an island off the west coast of Ireland, Hollywood filmmaker Robert Flaherty arrives on the neighboring island of Inishmore to film his movie The Man of Aran and excitement ripples through the sleepy community of Inishmaan. For orphaned Billy Claven, who has been relentlessly scorned by the island’s inhabitants, the film represents an escape from the poverty of his existence. He vies for a part in the film, and to everyone’s surprise, it is the cripple who gets his chance.
THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN revives the unique relationship between Atlantic Theater Company, Academy Award® winner Martin McDonagh, Tony Award® winning director Garry Hynes and the acclaimed Druid ensemble.
This production marks the third collaboration between Atlantic and McDonagh following the company’s critically acclaimed American premiere production of The Lieutenant Of Inishmore, which transferred to Broadway and received five 2006 Tony Award® nominations, including Best Play. Atlantic and Druid previously collaborated on the world premiere of McDonagh’s hit play The Beauty Queen of Leenane, which transferred to Broadway and won four 1998 Tony Awards®.
The creative team for THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN features scenic and costume design by Francis O’Connor, lighting design by Davy Cunningham, sound design by John Leonard and original music composed by Colin Towns.
THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN plays Tuesday through Friday at 8p, Saturday at 2p & 8p and Sundays at 2:00p and 7:00p. Visit www.atlantictheater.org for special holiday performance schedule.
ATLANTIC THEATER COMPANY AT THE LINDA GROSS THEATER is located at 336 West 20th Street (between 8th and 9th Avenues). Tickets are $65.00 and available by calling Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 (ticketcentral.com).
Ticket Prices: $65.00