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Stage Review

Dark humor on the Emerald Isle

Playwright uses small Irish town as a study of the good and bad of human nature

By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / February 5, 2011

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Martin McDonagh never wants you to get too comfortable.

Frequently hilarious though it is, there is a lacerating and unpredictable edge to the playwright’s “The Cripple of Inishmaan,’’ which has arrived at the Paramount Mainstage for a too-brief run of a coproduction by the Galway-based Druid Theatre Company and the New York-based Atlantic Theater Company.

So you laugh, you wince, you laugh again, you wince again. Mostly, you admire the playwright’s skill at populating the stage with nine characters who are indelibly rooted in the particularities of time (1934) and place (an island off the western coast of Ireland) while also ranging across a wide spectrum of human nature, in all its variegations and contradictions.

Not that Billy Claven, the title character, splendidly played by Tadhg Murphy, can see much variety. To Billy, a youth of 17 or 18, there’s no place like home . . . when it comes to stifling the spirit. For lack of anything better to do, he spends much of his time staring at cows.

Left an orphan when his parents drowned under mysterious circumstances, Billy has been raised by a pair of kindly, eccentric storekeepers, Eileen (Dearbhla Molloy) and Kate (Ingrid Craigie). He is severely disabled, with a deformed right foot and a right arm that dangles uselessly at his side, which earns him the nickname “Cripple Billy’’ among his fellow island inhabitants. They include JohnnyPateenMike (Dermot Crowley), the island gossip, and Slippy Helen (Clare Dunne), the volatile young woman on whom Billy has a crush.

When an American film company arrives to make a documentary at a nearby island (an episode inspired by Robert Flaherty’s 1934 movie “Man of Aran’’) Billy seizes on the chance at least to try to break free and forge a new life for himself.

None of this makes “The Cripple of Inishmaan’’ sound funny, does it? But it is. McDonagh finds a vein of dark comedy in the brutal directness of the island’s inhabitants, who are not necessarily mean-spirited but lack any of the usual social filters. “I’ve heard me mammy was a beautiful woman,’’ Billy says to his physician. The doctor replies: “No, no, she was awful ugly.’’ Billy: “Was she?’’ Doctor: “Oh, she’d scare a pig.’’

The playwright also has mordant fun with the oblivious, skewed logic of his characters’ quirky digressions: the murder of a goose and a cat; the loose morals of the (unseen) daughter of Jim Finnegan (also unseen); the obsession with telescopes that transfixes Helen’s brother, Bartley (Laurence Kinlan); Kate’s habit of talking to a stone when under duress.

Under the supple direction of Garry Hynes, the Druid’s artistic director, the ensemble delivers bravura performances across the board, including one by Boston’s own Nancy E. Carroll as JohnnyPateenMike’s 90-year-old mother, whom he feeds endless quantities of booze in the hope she will finally drink herself to death.

Crowley’s portrayal of the amusingly appalling JohnnyPateenMike is a special treat. A puffed-up chap who calls himself a “newsman’’ and prides himself on ferreting out every available tidbit of gossip, then traipsing about the island trading information for food, JohnnyPateenMike thinks nothing of chiding a widower named BabbyBobby (Liam Carney) for holding out on him. “Your Mrs. up and died of TB the other year, and who was the last to know?’’ JohnnyPateenMike says resentfully. “I was the last to know. I wasn’t told until the day she died, and you knew for weeks and weeks, with not a thought for my feelings. . .’’

As with his much bleaker “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,’’ McDonagh displays an acute understanding of the way small communities, where everybody knows everything about everybody and no detail from the past is forgotten, can maintain a suffocating hold on the aspirations of their inhabitants. Even the good-hearted Eileen demonstrates a who-do-you-think-you-are parochialism, snapping peevishly at Billy after his big adventure: “Don’t you be big-wording me again, Billy Claven.’’ The “big word’’ Billy used was “evidently.’’

The big word I’d use to describe “The Cripple of Inishmaan’’ is wonderful. But remember, don’t get too comfortable. McDonagh always has a surprise or two up his sleeve.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com

THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN Play by: Martin McDonagh

Directed by Garry Hynes

Sets and costumes, Francis O’Connor. Lights, Davy Cunningham. Sound, John Leonard. Composer, Colin Towns. Fight direction, J. David Brimmer.

Production by Druid Theatre Company and Atlantic Theater Company. Presented by Arts- Emerson: The World on Stage.

At: Paramount Mainstage. Through Sunday. Tickets $25-$79, 617-824-8000, www.artsemerson.org