Martin McDonagh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore has transferred to Broadway with every bright facet intact. What was true of the comedy-drama Off-Broadway still goes -- perhaps even more so. Is it possible that it has become even funnier and more trenchant? Is this one of those works with so much going on in it that, every time it's seen, it yields more rewards? That could well be.
The only change in the production as seen at the Atlantic Theatre Company earlier this year is that spike-haired Alison Pill is now playing the rifle-toting, sexually ready 16-year-old Mairead -- the only female role in the piece. (Kerry Condon, who played the part at the Atlantic, had to return to Europe to film the HBO series Rome). Pill's performance is just dandy and will be even dandier when she learns not to rush and therefore garble some of her lines.
One could call Inishmore a black comedy, but with all the fresh blood that's spilled before final fade-out, it might better be termed a bright-red comedy. You could also call it a post-Jacobean tragicomedy and get somewhere near to suggesting the humor and gravity in which it's awash. You can definitely call it uproariously funny -- although not every ticket buyer will be amused by McDonagh's idea of a hearty laugh. The London-born playwright with Ireland coursing through his imagination doesn't know from polite boulevard fare. With him, it's shanties and shabeens and the grisly things that transpire in them.
Except for his brilliant, surreal drama The Pillowman, he has to date devoted his playwriting efforts to two sets of trilogies: The Leenane Trilogy, which includes the award-winning The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Lonesome West, and A Skull in Connemara; and The Aran Trilogy, which includes this play along with The Cripple of Inishmaan (seen here some years ago in a misguided production) and The Banshees of Inisheer (still unproduced in New York). Much of what distinguishes McDonagh's work is his ability to execute a theatrical trick that few others can: treating a serious subject with sobriety and sending it up at the same time.
The hilarity and the tragedy of The Lieutenant of Inishmore revolve around the Irish troubles. The volatile -- okay, ballistic -- protagonist here is Padraic (David Wilmot), who's been part of an IRA splinter group calling itself the INLA and who busies himself with activities like slicing the right nipple from a drug dealer who's strung up by his feet. In the midst of this torture session, Padraic gets word from home that his cat, Wee Thomas, is doing "poorly." In actuality, we already know that Wee Thomas has been killed in the road -- perhaps by Davey (Domhnall Gleeson), a long-haired bicyclist who has brought the brain-bashed feline to a shack owned by Padraic's father, Donny (Peter Gerety). This abode, by the way, has been erected by set designer Scott Pask on what appears to be solidified lava, and it's dimly lighted by Michael Chybowski.
Davey and Donny know that they'll be in a pickle when the short-fused Padraic arrives to find a dead Wee Thomas. So the dimwits contrive to shoe-polish a tabby cat belonging to Davey's sister, Mairead, who can shoot out a cow's eyes from 60 paces. For her part, Mairead isn't shaking in her Army boots at the prospect of Padraic's return; in fact, she's waiting to join him in whatever splinter group he decides to embed himself. Also waiting for Padraic, with murder in their eyes, are three men whose IRA interests seethe in them: Christy (Andrew Connolly), Joey (Dashiell Eaves), and Brendan (Brian d'Arcy James).
McDonagh deploys his characters like ingredients in an Irish stew -- and this cluster is stewing, all right. They go after each other with pistols and rifles at the ready as the playwright makes his points about the futility of the fight for a free Ireland, a country that is in a quiet period now but wasn't when the play was written.
Directors like Wilson Milam, who helms this production, must celebrate McDonagh's comic vision because it gives them so much workable material -- and Milam misses no chance to exploit the quirks of this play. Neither does the extraordinary ensemble of actors, who are clad smartly by Theresa Squires. (We should also salute Anthony Giordano for the special effects he provides during the final explosive scenes.) Square of jaw and twinkling of eye, Wilmot offers a Padraic who's tough as bullets but also, well, a pussy-cat, whereas Gleeson's Davey is an appropriately sustained whine. The American newcomers do just as well; Gerety's Donny is an appropriately sustained bleat; Connolly, Eaves, and James have the right mealy menace; and Jeff Binder as the upside-down drug dealer plays his one scene with unexpected vigor.
McDonagh's genius is that, while making us double over with laughter, he sincerely laments a divided Ireland. Indisputably, this playwright has the goods, and he flaunts them again in The Lieutenant of Inishmore.