Taking the law into your own hands can be a risky business as Harry Wade and friends find out in Martin McDonagh’s hilarious dark comedy Hangmen which finally made its Broadway debut after being delayed two years by the pandemic. The cast of this Royal Court Theatre/Atlantic Theater Company production is somewhat different from the one that debuted Off Broadway in 2018 with four members of the original 11 person company remaining. British film star David Threlfall who made his New York stage debut in 1980 in his Tony Award nominated performance as “Smike” in Nicholas Nickleby returns to Broadway for the first time since 1997 in the leading role as Harry, the second most famous hangman in the United Kingdom.
While this comedy of menace is now less sinister than it was before without Johnny Flynn as the thuggish Peter Mooney, it is now funnier under the direction of Matthew Dunster who has staged all the productions of this play so far. The new cast also includes Tracie Bennett returning to Broadway for the first time since her 2012 award-winning performance as “Judy Garland” in End of the Rainbow. While there is still a good deal of violence in this play by the author of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Lonesome West, The Pillowman and The Lieutenant of Inishmore, it may just be his most compassionate and humane play.
Hangmen takes place in two time periods, 1963 and 1965. The opening scene shows us a cell in Durham Prison in the north of England. Harry, the hangman, is trying to get prisoner James Hennessy (Josh Goulding) ready for his execution for rape while Hennessy is fighting off the guards, insisting that he is innocent and was nowhere near Norfolk where the crime took place. Hennessy is also insulted that they did not send Albert Pierrepont, the legendary and most famous hangman in the UK who was actually retired by 1963. With little help from his assistant Syd Armfield (Andy Nyman), and with the governor and the doctor watching, Harry takes matters into his own hands and the deed is done. But was Hennessy guilty? According to Harry, this was a matter for the courts and not for him.
The rest of the play takes place in 1965 beginning on November 9, the day that hanging was abolished in the UK forever. Harry, now retired to running a pub in Oldham, a suburb of Manchester, England, with his browbeaten wife Alice (Bennett) is beset by his regulars as well as a local reporter who wants his opinions on the end of the death penalty as well as the second anniversary of his hanging of Hennessy. Although claiming that he always keeps his own counsel, Harry is coerced into giving the cub reporter Clegg an interview in which he insults Pierrepont who runs a pub two bus rides away. A London stranger named Peter Mooney (Alfie Allen, “Theon Greyjoy” on Game of Thrones) arrives and although he charms Alice and 15-year-old daughter Shirley (Gaby French), he behaves arrogantly and sinisterly, think early Malcolm MacDowell. When Shirley goes missing after Syd suggests that the stranger committed the crime for which Hennessy was hanged, and the published interview causes trouble with Pierrepont, the temperature rises in Harry’s pub. The play ends as it began with the guilt of Hennessy still unresolved.
Threlfall as the bullying Harry gives a big, obstreperous performance as a man not in control of himself or his emotions but whom everyone – or almost everyone – puts up with. Bennett is sensitive as his wife Alice who hardly put up a peep as to his insults and taking her for granted. Allen’s take on Mooney is as a fast-talking charmer who attempts to suggest he is more threatening than he actually is. Nyman as the mousy Syd who wants his revenge on Harry for getting him fired for sexual impropriety is comical as a man afraid of almost everything. Jeremy Crutchley is enigmatic as Inspector Fry of the local constabulary who appears to spend too much time in the pub when he should be out working.
Working as part of this first rate ensemble, Richard Hollis, John Horton, and Ryan Pope are amusing as chorus pub regulars who allow Harry to order them around, particularly Horton as a man who is much deafer than he knows, needing almost everything repeated for him, but often still getting it wrong. As the convicted killer Hennessy, Goulding puts up a good fight to the death. French’s Shirley nails the mopey, moody teenage daughter who obviously wants to get out from under her parents’ domination. Making a last scene appearance, John Hodgkinson in a bigger than life performance as the historical Albert Pierrepont, England’s most celebrated hangman, is the only one who can take Harry down a peg. Four of the actors (Crutchley, Hollis, Horton and Pope) demonstrate versatility playing two roles each.
Anna Fleischle’s three realistic settings (the grimy cell, the wood paneled pub and the all-white café) fit remarkably well into each other only partially giving away how it is done. Her costumes for this motley collection of North Britons are pitch-perfect. The lighting by Joshua Carr complements the three settings and the various times of day. The sound design by Ian Dickinson for Autograph adds to the verisimilitude of each scene.
While many of Martin McDonagh’s plays seem to be mainly about the violence in men’s souls, Hangmen is a character study of people who can’t leave their work behind them. The many characters are expertly drawn while the twists and turns of the plot are engrossing as a kind of mystery. While Hangmen originally played like a thriller Off Broadway, it is now that rare item, a comedy of menace that is extremely funny.
Hangmen (April 8 – June 18, 2022)
The Royal Court Theatre/Atlantic Theater Company production
John Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call Telecharge.com at 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.hangmenbroadway.com
Running time: two hours and 20 minutes including one intermission