By Tom Titus
November 5, 2015
There was a time was when only South Coast Repertory would, or could, tackle the sort of production that's currently on the stage of the Costa Mesa Playhouse. "A Behanding in Spokane" crackles with dialogue that would make David Mamet blush.
But despite all the language in the key of F and generous use of the N word, "Behanding" impresses principally because of the tremendous talent of its four-character cast. It's not a great play, far from it, but it grabs your attention with both hands, and its superlative cast dares you to look away from all the creative silliness.
Playwright Martin McDonagh is an Irish writer whose probing dramas "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" and "The Cripple of Inishmaan" (funny how he usually establishes the play's location in its title) have been presented at SCR. "Behanding" would fit well there as well, and cast changing wouldn't be necessary - these actors are professional caliber.
It would take several paragraphs just to detail the plot. Suffice it to say it involves a middle-aged man whose left hand was severed as a youth 27 years ago, and he's been searching for it ever since. Which makes him fair game for a pair of con artists eager to pick up a few bucks off his misery. Only the hand they find for him is, wait for it, the wrong color.
This situation exacerbates the problem and leads to the hustlers being chained to the hotel room pipe fixtures, while the fellow sets out on a single-handed (sorry) search to find his missing member - and sets up a potentially flammable time bomb to keep the con artists company.
In the midst of all this vocal conflagration, McDonagh has inserted an egregiously chatty hotel room clerk to serve not only as a thorn in the side of all three characters but as a warm-up comic to fill the intermission - if this play had one. His principal mission, apparently, is to stretch the show from one-act to full-length proportions.
Director Michael Serna has recruited a cast of stellar actors to play out this farcically absurdist exercise. As the one-handed, gun-wielding protagonist, Peter Hilton commands the stage physically and verbally, the strain of his frustration growing by leaps and bounds as he vents his homicidal anger.
Jeff Rolle Jr., as the senior member of the larcenous duo, conveys a black youth's street smarts combined with authentic terror for his safety. Most of the R-rated dialogue spews from him, and it falls in a crescendo of frantic wordplay. His white girlfriend, who's relegated to a quite believable subordinate role, is nicely played by Zoe Fiske.
Then there's the hyperkinetic Angel Correa, snapping, crackling and popping all over the stage as the motor-mouth room clerk Mervyn, who seems to possess a monkey fetish. One might label him a supernumerary, except that he exerts such rampant authority combined with a passionate refusal to be ignored.
Serna has created a perfect setting - a decaying hotel room somewhere in small-town America - and the squalid situation is embellished by Ryan Linhardt's downbeat lighting effects. This backdrop is perfect for McDonagh's coal-black comedy with its period streaks of frenetic violence.
"A Behanding in Spokane" is definitely recommended for mature audiences and those playgoers unoffended by repetitive raunchy language. But for those eager to experience new thresholds in the theater, it's atop the must-see list.
If You Go
What:"A Behanding in Spokane"
Where: Costa Mesa Playhouse, 611 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 15
Cost: $18 to $22
Information: (949) 650-5269 or http://www.costamesaplayhouse.com