It's the small victories that pull us through life's greatest disappointments. Oh, and you're going to die. Those are just two of the lessons in Martin McDonagh's dark comedy The Cripple of Inishmaan, now making its Broadway debut at the Cort Theatre in a production by London's Michael Grandage Company. Daniel Radcliffe reprises his WhatsOnStage Award-winning performance as Billy, the titular "cripple" with a heart of gold and a boatload of disappointment. If you enjoy nothing more than two hours of schadenfreude, this is the play for you.
You'd be in good company, according to McDonagh. Lots of people (particularly the Irish) enjoy reveling in the misfortunes of others. The Irish-British playwright's unique brand of black comedy (and often violence) has helped make him a staple of Broadway over the past decade, most recently with 2010's A Behanding in Spokane. While it is making its first appearance on Broadway, Inishmaan made its New York debut in 1998 at the Public Theater, and was then revived in 2008 at the Atlantic Theater Company. Gallows humor and the casual use of colorful language make this play a delight to hear, especially on the tongues of such a talented cast. The story, on the other hand, is a big downer.
The Cripple of Inishmaan is set in 1934 on Inishmaan, the least populated of the Aran Islands in Galway Bay. As such, inhabitants are often bored to tears and engage in copious idle chatter to pass the time. Shopkeepers Eileen Osbourne (Gillian Hanna) and her sister Kate (Ingrid Craigie) spend countless hours contemplating the tragic life of Billy (Radcliffe), the 17-year-old physically handicapped boy they adopted as a nephew after his parents died when he was an infant. "Poor Billy'll never be getting kissed," muses Eileen, almost gleeful in her pity. "Unless it was be a blind girl."
Billy walks with a limp, his left leg permanently extended in pointe and his left arm curled against his shoulder. Most people on the island callously refer to him as "Cripple Billy." He's an introverted boy who spends most of his time staring at cows or the pages of a book. That all changes when Johnnypateenmike (Pat Shortt), the island's primary purveyor of gossip, comes into the Osbournes' store bearing news of a big Hollywood film, The Man of Aran, shooting on the neighboring Inishmore. Billy hatches a plot to escape Inishmaan and become a famous actor. He feigns tuberculosis so that boat owner Babbybobby (Pádraic Delaney) will take pity on him and sail him to Inishmore where he can meet the film's director, Robert Flaherty, and convince him to take him back to California. Sadly, Billy's misfortunes are just beginning with this misguided attempt at success and happiness.
Radcliffe gives a physically committed, sympathetic performance. You root for him and feel really bad for laughing at some of the funnier (and crueler) lines at his expense. "What was we talking about, Cripple Billy? Oh aye, your dead mammy and daddy," says Helen McCormick (Sarah Greene), the beautiful bully girl with a tangle of red hair whom Billy secretly pines after. Greene endows Helen with a fierce spirit that is oddly compelling, considering her mean-girl nature. Billy's masochism becomes understandable, even if you can't help but laugh at him for it.
The laughs are involuntary. In a jab at the practice of weepy Irish fetishism, he fervently delivers a ludicrously sentimental second-act monologue that stops the play dead in its tracks. Never mind that this scene feels out of step with the rest of the play (there's a good reason for that), Radcliffe dives into the words all the same with the passion of a true believer.
It's June Watson, however, who steals the most laughs in the featured role of Mammy, Johnny's foul-mouthed, whiskey-swigging mother. Grandage and his cast have obviously carefully considered every beat of McDonagh's text, hitting all the right marks for maximum comic effect.
For his part, Shortt is the archetypal small-town busybody, odious and self-serving in every intention. He wanders onstage sporting a red nose and a hobo suit that could have been left backstage during the load-out of Waiting for Godot.
All of Christopher Oram's costumes are faded and dismal, capturing the Depression-era fashion of a typically depressed community. Oram's rotating set allows for maximum quickness in scene changes. The phalanx of canned peas dominating the shelves in the Osbournes' shop is a perfect metaphor for the unending monotony of island life, where a delivery of unbroken eggs is cause for celebration.
Of course, the denizens of Inishmaan know that it could be much worse: They could be Billy. His lot makes everyone else's life seem not so tragic by comparison. That's why they keep him around. And really, you'll probably feel a lot better about your life as you leave the theater. Does that make you a bad person? No, it just makes you human.