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Martin McDonagh Confronts Justice, Revenge, and the Swingin' '60s in Hangmen

An American debut from the prolific Irish playwright is reminiscent of his currently Oscar-nominated ''Three Billboards''.

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Mark Addy stars as Harry in Hangmen, directed by Matthew Dunster.
(© Ahron R. Foster)

"What's the second-best hangman in England to do on the day they've abolished hanging?"

Only Martin McDonagh, that great Irish dramatist who specializes in the blackest of dark comedy, could have written a play with a tagline like that. Hangmen, now receiving its American premiere at the Atlantic Theater Company, is quintessentially McDonagh: thrilling and chilling, ferociously hilarious, and wildly ambitious. The play is thematically similar to his Oscar contender Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and both works are also alike in their limitations. But Matthew Dunster's production is so excellent, and so fantastically acted, that the imperfections are easy to look past.

It's 1963 when we first meet hangman Harry (Mark Addy) and his assistant, Syd (Reece Shearsmith). They're about to execute Hennessy (Gilles Geary) for a crime he may or may not have committed. Protesting his innocence until the end, Hennessy puts up a good fight, but it's all in a day's work for a veteran executioner like Harry.

Fast-forward to 1965. Capital punishment has been outlawed, and Harry is now the proprietor of a pub in Oldham, slinging pints with his wife, Alice (Sally Rogers, as sharp as the gin she swills), and sullen 15-year-old daughter Shirley (played by Gaby French with raw sensitivity). The local barflies delight in Harry's tales of the good old days. An inquiring journalist (Owen Campbell) wants to put Harry's take on abolition on the front page. Demure at first, Harry is eventually happy to oblige, mostly so he can take jabs at his arch nemesis, Albert (Maxwell Caulfield), England's No. 1 hangman.

Enter Mooney (Johnny Flynn), a mysterious and sinewy figure who charms the professional drunks with his sharp wit and snappy intelligence, flirts with Alice, and starts making advances on Shirley. Trouble has arrived.

While Hangmen premiered at London's Royal Court in 2015, two years before McDonagh's current Best Picture front-runner hit cinemas, both works explore how out of reach justice must be for someone to be pushed to the point of exacting revenge. Both stories also question whether redemption is possible for someone trapped inside his or her own myopic universe. The answers don't come easily, and, onstage as onscreen, McDonagh has a tendency to paint himself into a corner, losing control while allowing the characters to talk in circles when he needs to rein it in.

Nonetheless, it's a whole lot of fun to be placed into this sepia-toned world we see onstage, one featuring all of the characteristics that delight McDonagh's fans: spine-tingling savagery, unexpected twists, and some truly macabre gallows humor. The way Shearsmith, one of three holdovers from the original London company alongside Rogers and Flynn, wrings laughs out of correcting "hung" to "hanged" is McDonagh at his finest and a work of art in terms of delivery.

Director Matthew Dunster has staged the play as a pitch-perfect thriller, where the suspense slowly escalates until it reaches an edge-of-your-seat crescendo during a thunderstorm. Anna Fleischle's vintage costumes and miraculous set that transforms itself from walled-in prison cell to massively realistic barroom expertly depict the period, while Joshua Carr's moody lighting and the eerie sound effects of Ian Dickinson amp up the melodrama.

With the exception of Caulfield, whose stilted work seems a little too off even for this unconventional world, the performances are firecrackers, and Dunster has built a taut, eccentric ensemble of actors. Addy, best known as Robert Baratheon on Game of Thrones, fits the suit-and-dickey-bowed Harry to a T, his hulking figure and booming voice making him the most imposing man in the room. The character calls for both revulsion and empathy, and his performance impressively earns them both.

As Mooney, teeming with the psychosexual menace of a character in a Joe Orton play, Flynn is deliciously perverse, playing his cards close to the vest at all times. A landmine waiting to explode, he delivers a great live-wire performance that thrives on how far he can go to make everyone, onstage and off, uncomfortable. He's a perfect fit for this universe.

Hangmen falls on the higher end of the McDonagh spectrum, imperfect but engaging, and with enough exceptional moments to keep us talking. This one deserves to hang around for a long time.

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