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THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN IN THE NEW YORK TIMES

Atlantic Theater Company and Druid‘s production of Academy Award® winner and four-time Tony Award® nominee Martin McDonagh‘s THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN, directed by Tony Award® winner Garry Hynes is playing a limited engagement through Sunday, February 1, 2009.

 

NEW YORK TIMES REVIEW – Monday, December 22, 2008

 

On a Barren Isle, Gift of the Gab and Subversive Charm

 

By Ben Brantley

 

For those of you for whom an annual reading of “A Christmas Carol” is as welcome as a two-ton fruitcake, the Atlantic and Druid Theater Companies have provided a savory alternative. That’s the fine imported Irish revival of Martin McDonagh’s “Cripple of Inishmaan,” which opened Sunday night at the Linda Gross Theater, offering its own salty variation on that sugarplum Tiny Tim. He is called Cripple Billy, and like Dickens’s beloved tot, he is sickly, misshapen and deeply wistful. I can promise you, though, that he isn’t about to say, “God bless us, everyone.”

 

Any work by Mr. McDonagh, the theater’s reigning master of gory Irish gothic, would seem an unlikely choice as a cheering cup of wassail. But Garry Hynes’s first-rate production of this 1997 comedy about a Hollywood fever epidemic in rural Ireland in 1934 emanates a hearthside warmth and coziness that could well seduce theatergoers put off by the Grand Guignol of McDonagh fare like “The Pillowman” and “The Lieutenant of Inishmore.” Be warned, though: This is a play by Mr. McDonagh, which means that sentimental warmth can suddenly scorch and coziness turn claustrophobic.

 

“The Cripple of Inishmaan” is the work that people point to as evidence that Mr. McDonagh has a heart. (Personally, I find that crucial piece of anatomy beating steadily in all his plays, but never mind.) “Cripple” is unusual in his oeuvre in that it has a (fairly) low violence quotient, and there isn’t a corpse in sight. It is also his most willfully whimsical work, with fey Irish eccentricities slathered on so thickly that you suspect that Mr. McDonagh had set out to sour us all forever on twinkly Gaelic charm.

 

A 1998 production of “Cripple” at the Public Theater, with Jerry Zaks directing a mostly American cast, turned McDonagh country into an exceedingly twee Dogpatch. And the show suffered in comparison with “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” a harsher McDonagh play that had taken New York by storm earlier that year, in another Druid production at the Atlantic directed by Ms. Hynes, which later transferred to Broadway to win a clutch of Tony Awards.

 

Happily, with this staging – which features Marie Mullen, one of the splendid stars of “Beauty Queen” – “Cripple” emerges as a subversive charmer that shows off Mr. McDonagh’s skills as an expectation-thwarting master of knotted yarns. I didn’t see Nicholas Hytner’s widely praised original production for the National Theater in London. But it’s hard to imagine an interpretation that makes this play’s singular melding of sentimentality and savagery feel more organic than this one does.

 

Set principally on a sparsely populated island off the west coast of Ireland, “Cripple” portrays the impact of the presence in nearby Inishmore of an American film crew (for the Robert Flaherty movie “Man of Aran”) on the excitement-starved inhabitants of Inishmaan. Notable among them is Cripple Billy (Aaron Monaghan), an overgrown orphan whose chief hobby has hitherto been staring at cows.

 

With his twisted body and wheezing cough, Billy is the pride and woe of the women who raised him, Kate and Eileen (Ms. Mullen and Dearbhla Molloy, both wonderful), who run a tidy but understocked country store. (Francis O’Connor’s set is a melancholy blend of barrenness and hominess.) Billy’s restlessness disturbs his protective guardians. “Stop thinking aloud,” Eileen tells him. “Did you ever see the Virgin Mary going thinking aloud?”

 

That question is classic McDonagh, a wry warping of Irish folksiness into absurdity. (One of the play’s best running jokes involves sentences that begin, “Ireland mustn’t be such a bad place if … .”) But in truth, thinking aloud is among the more thrilling pursuits on offer on the lonely isle of Inishmaan. As is often true of Mr. McDonagh’s work, “Cripple” thrives on the desperation bred by rural boredom.

 

Kate finds herself talking (and worse, listening) to a stone in times of crisis, while Eileen is driven to eating the store’s supplies of American candies on the quiet. And Helen (Kerry Condon), the feisty lass who is the object of Billy’s affections, routinely amuses herself by pegging fresh eggs at targets that include her brother, Bartley (Laurence Kinlan), and a salacious priest.

Inishmaan’s hunger for diversions has been the making of JohnnyPateenMike (David Pearse), who supports himself and his alcoholic mother (Patricia O’Connell) by retailing scraps of news to the villagers: tales of feuds sparked by a goose’s biting a cat, of a sheep born without ears and, most momentously, of the arrival of Flaherty and his film crew. As pricelessly played by Mr. Pearse, Johnny is a spiteful creature, a stocky human fire hydrant as filled with resentment as with gossip, and the antithesis of the rangy, laconic and kindly BabbyBobby (Andrew Connolly), who transports Billy to the film site in his boat.

 

But character is not a fixed entity in Inishmaan. “Cripple” is driven by the inconsistencies of human behavior, which echo this equally sad and funny play’s whiplash reversals of mood and fortune. The cast members admirably accept and convey their characters’ paradoxical nature without making a big deal of it. This is essential. For while you would assume that everyone in Inishmaan would know everyone else’s business inside and out, people can still surprise one another. For lack of much better to do, they hoard secrets; they misrepresent themselves; and oh, how they love to lie.

 

Or should we say tell stories? Most of Mr. McDonagh’s plays are ultimately about the importance of storytelling, as a source of salvation and, on occasion, destruction. His plays both satirize and glorify the Irish penchant for self-mythologizing and tall tales, for digging narrative wealth out of seemingly barren soil. In this sense the gossip-dispensing Johnny is as much the play’s soul as Mr. Monaghan’s beautifully blunt, thwarted Billy, with his bottomless yearning.

 

To read the full review: http://theater2.nytimes.com/2008/12/22/theater/reviews/22bran.html?ref=arts&pagewanted=print

 

For playing schedule and ticket information, visit: www.atlantictheater.org

 

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