By Lucy Komisar
The stone-faced women who anchor Martin Donagh’s play are as flinty as the rocks that litter the landscape and pile up to create the rough walls of people‘s houses. The young, tough, fierce, violent Helen (the excellent Sarah Greene) tells of being groped by a priest. She kills a duck and a cat on order; she smashes eggs on the head of her brother Bartley (Conor MacNeill).
Faces appear in permanent frowns. Where the climate and scenery is harsh, so are the relations between people. But curiously all of them have a warmth they do their best to hide and which Donagh pulls inevitably out. We see a hidden sympathy and compassion.
It‘s a dark comic look at the cruelty and caring that exist side by side in barren seaside place in Ireland.
Sisters Eileen Osbourne (Gillian Hanna) and Kate (Ingrid Craigie), both wonderfully portrayed, are middle-aged and cynically inured to their hard scrabble lives. They run a shop with a rough wood counter, stone walls that surround rows of cans of peas and little else. The running gag in this funny-dark play is that, as Eileen says, “Ireland mustn‘t be such a bad place if Germans want to live here.”
But Donagh, aided by the sensitivity of director Michael Grandage in this very welcome revival of his 1996 play, is quietly saying that maybe it‘s not so bad as it first seems. The rocks are harsh, but there‘s humanity underneath.
The drama centers around an unlikely anti-hero, Billy (Daniel Radcliffe), who was crippled as an infant. When his parents died in a boating accident, he was taken in by the sisters, who he calls his aunties.
He limps badly on a twisted foot. Radcliffe perfectly underplays the role; his Billy is mild and sweet, avoiding melodrama. The cruel locals call him “cripple Billy.” They ignore his pleas to call him just Billy. He sits in the fields for hours and stares at cows to get away from the meanness.
The sisters hover over Billy. And Johnnypateenmike (a fine Pat Shortt), who will sell people‘s private lives as “news” for a couple of eggs, also hides a secret good-heartedness. He has a weird relationship with his mother, Mammy (June Watson), an excellent over-the-top hag. Or maybe not.
And Billy is secretly in love with Helen.
The drama is built around the making of a real American film, “Man of Aran,” being shot in the 1930s on a neighboring island. Billy thinks getting a role in the film is his chance to escape a miserable life. When he is chosen and goes to Hollywood, it appears to be a life-changing event. But maybe not.
Nothing is ever as it seems, including the events in his drab hotel room in Hollywood, so I won‘t give the dénouement away. This play is a tough and elegant charmer that sticks with you.
“The Cripple of Inishmaan.” Written by Martin M. Donagh; directed by Michael Grandage. Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street, New York City. 212-239-6200 or 800-432-7250. Opened April 20, 2014; closes July 20, 2014. 6/2/14.