Go-See: “Hangmen” at the Atlantic Theater Company

Martin McDonagh, Ireland’s nastiest playwright, seems to be having quite the moment right now. While his plays and movies have long been admired by a rarefied audience, it is the recent critical and commercial success of his Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, up for seven Academy® Awards this Sunday, that has shot McDonagh into the limelight. Folks across the country are able to encounter the solid-yet-unspectacular Billboards for themselves, but New Yorkers are currently presented with a special opportunity to see McDonagh’s latest work for the stage live and in person. It’s an opportunity that you won’t want to miss either: Hangmen is absolutely first-rate McDonagh, fully deserving of being included in the same breath as The Pillowman or The Beauty Queen of Leenane, and as richly entertaining and deeply disturbing as any evening of theatre you’re likely to encounter.

Largely set in 1965, Hangmen centers around Harry, the currently serving hangman at the time of the abolition of the practice in Great Britain, and the members of the community that spend their days drinking in his small pub in the northern English town of Oldham. The drama gets going when a mysterious stranger from London starts hanging around the pub, nominally to rent out a room to stay in, and takes a particular fascination in Shirley, Harry’s 15-year-old self-proclaimedly shy daughter.

Built with careful precision and an impeccably wound plot, Hangmen is arguably one of the bleakest dramas to arrive in New York in some years. Fundamentally, Hangmen is a savage screed against the usage of the death penalty in modern society, and watching McDonagh’s blindingly idiotic characters take the law into their own hands produces a kind of stomach-churning bile too powerful to ignore. However, McDonagh also knows that if you expect an audience to listen, first and foremost you must entertain them. And Hangmen is nothing if not entertaining, its black comedy and beautifully assembled sense of suspense keeping audience members thoroughly engaged until the curtain goes down, at which point you might feel slightly more sick to your stomach than you had planned to. It’s hard to imagine even the most pro-execution audience member feeling assured of their political position after encountering Hangmen, which is absolutely the highest compliment that can be paid to polemical theatre.

Thankfully, the Atlantic Theatre has done a bang-up job bringing Hangmen across the pond from its Royal Court premiere. Though a far less elaborate physical production than the one presented in London, Matthew Dunster’s staging is razor-sharp and finely attuned to McDonagh’s hyper-specific style. The 12-person cast is likewise ideal, with Sally Rogers as Alice, Harry’s long-suffering wife, deserving special marks for her world-weary and tremendously sad performance.

Watching the final moments of Hangmen, in which two characters gently shrug off the concept that they had been responsible for the death of an innocent man, one recognizes just how badly New York had been missing the savagery of Martin McDonagh. However long the wait, it’s so wonderful to have him back.

Hangmen plays at the Atlantic Theater through March 25. Tickets and information available here.

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