Early on in Keegan Theatre’s production of A Behanding in Spokane, now playing at the company’s Church Street Playhouse, eccentric hotel clerk Mervyn (Bradley Foster Smith) opines upon the lack of excitement and intrigue checking in to his dingy roadside establishment. The character’s delightfully rambling description of all the outlandish scenarios he’s imagined uncovering in his years manning the reception desk quickly establishes Mervyn as the show’s most commanding, and entertaining, presence. And if he’s looking for excitement and intrigue, the grisly, beyond-bizarre sequence of events that follows more than fits the bill.
To be clear: This isn’t a play to see if you’re averse to 90 uninterrupted minutes of the kind of action in which severed human hands play a starring role. But that’s just getting our toes bloody. Director and Keegan company member Colin Smith’s take on the black comedy is splattered with school shooting fantasies, drug deals, overbearing mothers, and a preoccupation with the monkey house at the zoo, among other things, as a pair of small-time crooks (Manu Kumasi and Laura Herren) and a bored innkeeper get in the way of the dubious Carmichael’s (Mark A. Rhea) lifelong mission to retrieve the hand he was robbed of as a teen.
Rhea, the company’s producing artistic director—who’s often blessed with the Keegan’s richest roles and often doesn’t do them justice—comes up short again here as an obsessive drifter type with a sadistic streak, though to be fair, the actor’s perpetually burnt out and fumbling affect works far better here than it did in many previous parts. In such an offbeat script, casting a lead who doesn’t take full dramatic advantage of the character’s quirky nuances is a significant blow to the production’s potential overall impact. (When Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, the dark and twisty brain behind the Oscar-nominated In Bruges and last year’s Seven Psychopaths, debuted Behanding on Broadway in 2010, Christopher Walken played Carmichael—a clue as to the level of idiosyncratic range the role calls for.)
Playing Toby and Marilyn, small-town pot dealers in way over their heads, Kumasi and Herren grow into their characters as the drama unfolds and the stakes get higher. Kumasi gets more chances to stand out than his partner in crime, and he takes them, landing laughs with a handful of terrified monologues and quick-thinking confrontations. But it’s still Foster Smith’s not-as-aloof-as-he-seems receptionist who gives the strange but straightforward production its most distinctive flavor. Both in shifty physicality and in long-winded, strung-out delivery Mervyn delivers a dark and goofy depth up to par with the play’s unusual script, helping boost the performance level closer to that which its material deserves.
Atmospherically the production hits an appropriately soiled note; the hotel room in which the entirety of the action takes place is dressed by set designer Carol Baker in peeling yellowed wallpaper and a bedspread you surely wouldn’t want to examine with an infrared light. The play’s language, too, enforces the haze of ill repute swirling the stage, and when the actors sling those (often R-rated) words with their intended punch, the production gains a whole new level of depravity.
What Behanding really has going for it is its urgent absurdity. This is a story dropping four people into an increasingly off-the-wall (and increasingly perilous) situation and observing the consequences. What happens, as it turns out, offers an amusing tangle of motives and personalities and an oddly imaginative plot line you’ll have trouble explaining to your friends but will be able to follow . . . mostly. In any case, hats off for originality—or maybe in this case, hands.
A Behanding in Spokane is at the Keegan Theatre’s Church Street theater through April 7. Running time is 90 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets ($30 to $35) are available via Keegan’s website.