Atlantic Theater Company
Linda Gross Theater
336 West 20th St. between Eighth & Ninth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through March 25, $90-$110
British-Irish writer and filmmaker Martin McDonagh further establishes himself as one of the finest storytellers in all the land with the exquisitely rendered, Olivier Award–winning Hangmen, which has just been very deservedly extended through March 25 at the Atlantic. McDonagh is already riding high with Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, which he wrote, produced, and directed and has been nominated for seven Academy Awards; the film is a razor-sharp investigation of one mother’s determination to find out who raped and killed her daughter in a small town that wants to move on from the tragedy. Hangmen begins in 1963, when master executioner Harry Wade (Mark Addy) and his somewhat hapless assistant, Syd Armfield (Reece Shearsmith), are preparing to hang convicted child rapist and murderer Hennessy (Gilles Geary), who is fighting to stay alive. “You’re hanging an innocent man! I never even met the girl! I’ve never even been to Norfolk!” Hennessy insists. “That’s all just the whys and wherefores. That’s nowt to do with me,” the burly Harry explains shortly before pulling the lever and hanging Hennessy. “Now where’s our bloody breakfast? I, for one, am fucking starved,” Harry says after Hennessy is officially declared dead. To Harry, hanging is his job, and he is simply going to carry out the orders of the government to the best of his ability.
Two years later, Harry is at the pub he runs with his wife, Alice (Sally Rogers). Also there are four regulars, the daft Bill (Richard Hollis), the old and deaf Arthur (John Horton), Charlie (Billy Carter), who repeats everything for Arthur, and Fry (David Lansbury), a policeman who looks the other way whenever necessary. Capital punishment, including hanging, has just been outlawed in Britain, and young reporter Clegg (Owen Campbell) is trying to get a quote from Harry, who refuses to talk — until Clegg brings up Albert Pierrepoint (Maxwell Caulfield), the most famous of Britain’s executioners and Harry’s archnemesis and former boss. They are soon joined by the mysterious Peter Mooney (Johnny Flynn), a suspicious character who appears to have an ulterior motive. After Mooney violates pub protocol, Alice says to Harry, “Don’t mind him, love. He just don’t know the ropes, does he?” to which Harry responds, “There’s ropes and there’s ropes, though, int there?,” one of several rope jokes McDonagh uses. Mooney turns more menacing as he seeks to rent a room above the pub and takes an interest in Alice and Harry’s extremely shy fifteen-year-old daughter, Shirley (Gaby French), setting up a thoroughly unpredictable, wickedly funny second act.
Hangmen is loosely inspired by the exploits of the real-life Harry Allen, an English hangman who at first assisted Pierrepoint (the subject of the excellent 2005 biopic Pierrepoint — The Last Hangman) and later, as chief executioner, hanged a man named James Hanratty who professed his innocence to the very end. The Royal Court production is expertly directed by Matthew Dunster (The Lightning Child, Mogadishu), who never allows the play to pause for a breath; none of the actors are ever just standing around, waiting, even as the action takes place elsewhere. Anna Fleischle’s set marvelously morphs twice, including a gripping scene between Mooney and Armfield in a café. Addy (Game of Thrones, The Full Monty) is utterly charming as the boisterous and blustery Harry, a bigger-than-life figure who has no regrets, except for declining an invitation to hang convicted Nazis. In his relatively brief appearance, Caulfield (Grease 2, Class Enemy) is a hoot as Pierrepoint, a serious man who brings down the house. But the success of the narrative depends on Mooney, played with devilish charm by Flynn (Richard III / Twelfth Night, Jerusalem); the questions surrounding who Mooney is, what he wants, and what he might have done are central not only to the play but to the overall debate over the effectiveness of the death penalty as justice and deterrent. And through it all, the real star is McDonagh, whose skill at writing dialogue and putting well-drawn, unique characters in emotionally and psychologically (and physically) challenging situations is unparalleled. McDonagh’s plays have won three Olivier Awards (The Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Pillowman, and Hangmen), earned two other Best Play nominations (The Beauty Queen of Leenane, A Skull in Connemara), and garnered four Best Play Tony nods; meanwhile, he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for his 2008 thriller, In Bruges. The man can just plain write. Hangmen is a sizzling black comedy, one of the best plays of the season. It’s not going to hang around forever — although a Broadway transfer would be most welcome — so book your tickets now.