Suspend disbelief for “A Behanding in Spokane,” the ultimate shaggy dog story

By Lucy Komisar

Martin McDonagh takes weird to new levels in this ultimate shaggy dog story.  It’s bizarre and funny, albeit in a curious way, and if you suspend disbelief and don’t take it too seriously, you will have a good time. Though you may shake your head as you leave the theater.


It seems that a 17-year-old kid was playing catch in Spokane, Washington, when six hillbillies dragged him to the railroad tracks, forced his hand onto the rail and watched while a train sped by and sliced it off. Then they used it to wave him good-bye. He, Carmichael (Christopher Walken), decided that if he didn‘t die, he would retrieve his hand and pay the attackers back. He has spent the ensuing 47 years doing just that.

Hillbillies in Washington state? When Walken tells the story, longish hair hanging limp below his ears, sunken eyes peering out of a drawn almost macabre face, you have to believe it. He creates a character who is creepy and ordinary at the same time.


So, now he has ended up in a film noir setting of a seedy hotel: blue chenille-covered bed, open radiator, and white neon Hotel sign partly visible through the window (set by Scott Pask). He has promised $500 to a couple of local pot sellers, Toby (Anthony Mackie) and Marilyn (Zoe Kazan) who say they have found his hand.

When Carmichael suspects he is being conned, his reaction is wicked. But it’s a black comedy, so the horrific jokes are on the audience.

You have to sympathize with Toby (whose frustration is brashly expressed by Mackie); he has to deal not only with the threatening Carmichael, but with his girlfriend Marilyn (her wide-eyed na¯veté aptly conveyed by Kazan). She seems to always say the wrong thing; in the circumstances, that could be deadly.


The hotel desk clerk, Mervyn (Sam Rockwell), out on bail for selling speed, appears entertained by it all. Rockwell plays him so matter-of-factly that you hardly question that, hoping for adventure, he’s sorry he was never in a high school massacre so he could be a hero. Or that he has a deep affection for a gibbon he visited at the zoo.

An invisible presence is Carmichael’s mother, who we learn via a phone call has fallen out of a tree she was climbing to retrieve a balloon. Carmichael shifts between caring son-to-mother chat and cursing her when he discovers she’s poked around in his room.  Mother, by the way, is a racist and there are questions raised when Toby talks to her on the phone in an obvious black dialect because he is, well, black.

Asked if the hillbillies were black or white, Carmichael cracks, You can’t get black hillbillies. You never can tell with a black comedy.

A Behanding in Spokane. Written by Martin McDonagh; directed by John Crowley. Schoenfeld Theatre 236 West 45th Street, New York City. (212) 239-6200. Opened March 4, 2010; closes June 6, 2010.

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