Orange County Register

'A Behanding in Spokane' is a pitch-black comedy of obsession in Costa Mesa

By Eric Marchese / Contributing Writer

Nov. 4, 2015 - Updated 12:00 a.m.

In his quirky, pitch-black comedy "A Behanding in Spokane," Martin McDonagh has taken a page or two from film director Quentin Tarantino.

That should surprise few, considering the playwright has said he prefers the medium of film to the stage – and that McDonagh's 2008 film "In Bruges" is very Tarantino-esque in subject, style and flavor.

A visit to Costa Mesa Playhouse for the rarely seen 2010 "Spokane" reveals a continuation of this mode. The first McDonagh play to be set in the U.S., it's populated entirely by characters who might easily be at home in "Reservoir Dogs" or "Pulp Fiction."

The focal event is a "behanding" that occurred 27 years earlier. Yep, you read that right: Like a beheading, a behanding involves a hand being severed from the body at the wrist.

That gruesome act befell Carmichael (Peter Hilton) nearly three decades ago. He relates how, living in Spokane at age 17, six "hillbilly bastards" grabbed him and, for no apparent reason, nor without speaking a word, held his left hand down against railroad tracks, where it was severed by a passing train.

As Carmichael relates, the crowning insult added to his injury was that as the band of thugs wandered away, they waved goodbye to him using his own severed hand.

Since then, the now 44-year-old Carmichael has pursued two goals: Finding and paying back the creeps who maimed him and retrieving his hand. The hand, he admits, can no longer be of any use to him – but it's a part of him, and he wants it back, spurring him to criss-cross the U.S. for his entire adult life.

Things open with Carmichael in a standoff with Toby (Jeff Rolle Jr.) and Marilyn (Zoé Fiske), a young couple who've offered him the missing hand for $500 cash. The penny-ante drug dealers, though, are simply after a quick score. They don't have the hand, turning the encounter into a complicated, sometimes agonizing ordeal for the clueless pair.

Carmichael's obsessive quest drives everything that happens in "Spokane." Along the way, as seen in director Michael Serna's staging, we get a close-up view not only of treachery, backbiting and double-crossing typical among small-time criminals, but also of a man whose bitterness and thirst for vengeance has driven him to acts whose violence rivals the one which initially sparked them.

Typical for McDonagh, his script mixes eccentric characters and colorful, profane dialogue. A darkly comedic meditation on the random nature of the universe in general and of violence in particular, it's generously peppered with actual and evoked images of brutality and mayhem and racism – Carmichael toward Toby and vice-versa – that, however crude, is integral to the play's fabric.

McDonagh balances Carmichael's hair-trigger temper and trust in no one with his devotion, through phone calls, to his mother. To that end, Hilton's characterization is of an outwardly normal, non-descript guy who's organized, methodical, almost preternaturally single-minded, and has a frighteningly short fuse.

It takes a few scenes, but Hilton eventually evokes an apt level of pathos surrounding the obsessive, one-handed Carmichael. While not exactly an anti-hero, you do feel for him, considering what cruelty befell him as a teen.

Given the surprisingly underwritten nature of their roles, Rolle and Fiske do about as well as one could expect. Toby ping-pongs comedically between being a faux-macho wheeler-dealer bent on protecting himself and his girlfriend and a sobbing puddle of fear, while Marilyn is a vital cog of the plot, but very little more.

Angel Correa nearly walks off with the production as Mervyn, the small hotel's all-purpose staffer. Just for kicks, the hyper, loopy, gum-chewing, admitted speed freak injects himself into the intrigue unfolding in Carmichael's room. Whenever the explosive scenario appears defused, count on Mervyn to reignite it.

Correa injects the character with nervous energy and comical tics, prefacing Mervyn's nearly every word and action with a prelude of elaborate gestures. The actor's manic persona combines with his dialogue to create a satisfying amount of depth to a character that's at first glance superficial. Serna's hotel room set is suitably seedy-looking and decrepit, the kind of cheap, run-down meeting place Carmichael would prefer.

McDonagh's more recent work is an acquired taste, much like Tarantino's singular blend of pet film genres with violence-prone personalities – so Costa Mesa Playhouse's enactment of "A Behanding in Spokane" will likely attract, and satisfy, theatergoers with a yen for the play's blend of offbeat yet oddly compelling elements.

'A Behanding in Spokane'

When: Through Nov. 15. 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays

Where: Costa Mesa Playhouse, 661 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa

How much: $20 ($18 seniors/students)

Length: 1 hour, 40 minutes (no intermission)

Suitability: Adult themes and language

Call: 949-650-5269