Review: 'The Lieutenant of Inishmore'

San Jose Stage scrubs some of the heft from Martin McDonagh's black comedy
Rob August channels 'The Punisher' in his portrayal of Mad Padraic in SJ Stage's production of 'The Lieutenant of Inishmore.'

Joshua Marx directs Martin McDonagh's play The Lieutenant of Inishmore with verve and efficiency. In this black comedy about a rogue INLA (Irish National Liberation Army) agent set on a path of revenge and destruction, the production emphasizes comedy even when the comic asides land in Grand Guignol territory.

The pacing is light on its feet. Marx wrangles passable Irish accents from almost every member of the cast. And the actors commit to the psychic and physical geography of rural Ireland. As an ensemble, they're all on the same page. The production answers every question McDonagh poses on the page except the most important one: "Why?"

A black comedy divorced from blackness lacks any lasting emotional impact. In this case, the actors have been directed to amuse themselves and the audience, and they do, but by the end of the play it's not at all clear why the characters are behaving the way they are.

As the season's opening show, The Lieutenant comes across as the most literal interpretation of that idea. Imagine an Irish version of the DC Comics anti-hero, The Punisher, and you'll recognize Mad Padraic (Rob August). His sexually fetishized costume straps August's pumped-up body into the tightest of tank tops and pair of black denim jeans. The leather straps that crisscross his chest connect to holsters containing guns, knives, ropes and god only knows what else. McDonagh introduces the character while he's holding someone captive. August carries a scarred, shirtless, semi-conscious James (Andy Cooperfauss) onto the stage, where he proceeds to hang his prisoner upside down on a mechanical chain. Torture is part of Padraic's everyday office routine.

Just as he's about to slice off one of James's nipples (he's already ripped two of his toenails), Padraic's father Donny (Randall King) calls. While Padraic has been scouting the country in search of human targets to cauterize, Donny's been looking after his son's black cat, Tommy. But well before James's nipples are threatened with detachment, the play begins with Davey's (Trevor March) arrival, Donny's long-haired, bicycle-riding neighbor. On his way home, Davey stops to pick up a dead cat he sees in the middle of the street. Thinking it's Tommy, he delivers it to Donny. It's a small, well-intentioned gesture that paves the road ahead, and the rest of the plot, directly to hell.

The problem with playing menace for laughs is that it undermines the unhinged psychology that leads to the violence. The actors haven't been instructed to imply much of anything between the ironic line readings. Instead of the audience being truly fearful of Padraic's unpredictable behavior and that of the three INLA hitmen who are trailing him, the play can then devolve into a live-action video game. Cats' heads can turn to mush. Chests can spatter blood across the wall. But the consequences don't suggest anything real. They're just temporary and theatrical. When Harold Pinter included two gangster-like figures in his play The Birthday Party, they didn't need guns. They threaten the other characters with language, and to devastating effect.

Since The Lieutenant of Inishmore was first staged in 2001, McDonagh has expanded his approach to and commentary on manmade violence. In his most recent film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a woman whose daughter was murdered. Hayes' maternal rage and guilt prompt her vitriolic response to the police department's inability to find the killer. Mildred Hayes has been driven mad by grief, but the writer provides a recognizable context, if not always a justifiable one, for her actions. In comparison, this production of The Lieutenant waters down our experience of the violence. It's good for a chuckle or two but then quickly loses meaning as soon as the cast lines up for the curtain call.

The Lieutenant of Inishmore
Thru Oct 21, $32+
San Jose Stage Company

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