“Hangmen” starts with a bang, or should I say, a snap of a neck. The play begins on the morning of an execution, with the condemned man proclaiming his innocence. “I’m getting hung by nincompoops!” he exclaims, frantic and desperate. Another man corrects him: “Hanged. You’re getting ‘hanged’ by nincompoops.” The audience laughs, as the man’s head is enclosed in a noose, and he is pushed to his death. This is the first sign that “Hangmen” is less of a crime thriller and more of an overlong Monty Python sketch.
The new dark comedy from British-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh takes place in 1965 in a small town in Northern England (with the thick accents to match). The U.K. has just outlawed the death penalty and the town’s second-most prolific executioner Harry (an imperious, yet quietly hilarious, David Threlfall) is now out of a job.
Of course, unemployment (and the possibility that he may have hanged an innocent man) doesn’t stop Harry from holding onto a grudge with his rival executioner Pierrepoint (a scene-stealing John Hodgkinson), who is famed in the town for hanging Nazis after World War II. “Hanging Germans en masse, well, it’s not a hard job, is it? They do what they’re told, don’t they? They follow orders,” says Harry in one of the play’s many instances of gallows humor.
Instead of being set in a jail house, as would be expected, “Hangmen” takes place almost entirely in the pub that Harry owns with his wife Alice (Tracie Bennett, who does her best in a thankless role). One evening, a “menacing” stranger named Mooney (played with petulance by “Game of Thrones'” Alfie Allen), walks into the bar. He may have a connection with the potentially innocent man Harry hanged, and he appears to have taken a calculated interest in Shirley, Harry’s teenage daughter (played by Gaby French, the highlight of the show).
That’s the plot, or at least the best I can make of it, because “Hangmen” isn’t much concerned with typical dramatic structure or character development. The end of Act 1 ends on a note of mystery and suspense, which is then promptly ignored by the play’s end. Instead, in “Hangmen,” McDonagh is engaging in an extended, two-and-a-half-hour riff on what life may have been like for a professional executioner. And what it seems to entail is joking about subjects that are considered taboo: capital punishment, violence against women, mental illness, death.
There’s also some casual misogyny, such as the dismissive insults Harry hurls at his wife and daughter, and casual racism, such as when one of the bar patrons remarks that he doesn’t talk to Black people. “Hangmen” doesn’t try to make you sympathize with the men making those offensive comments, they just speak and those words are left, well, hanging like dead weight. You can call it realism in its depiction of small-town mentality, but it plays more like McDonagh wanting to have his offensive cake and eat it, too.
Anna Fleischle’s massive set keeps Harry’s pub from feeling too cramped, and there are enough surprising reveals to keep things interesting. But tonally, “Hangmen” is all over the place — it starts off with dark humor, moves to drama and thriller and ends with slapstick involving a noose and a chair.
The cast and director Matthew Dunster have trouble navigating the tonal shifts. “Hangmen” is quite successful in building suspense and a sense of mystery in the first act. But in the second act, when things go off the rails, everything is still played with the same stiff-lipped, morose air — as if everyone is afraid of letting the audience laugh too much. The punchlines land with a heavy thud.
“Hangmen” also contains some hanging plot threads that are not truly resolved or adequately explained. There may be a theme here about miscarriage of justice and toxic masculinity, but don’t strain your neck too hard looking for it. A looser directorial hand would have made these nitpicks moot, because if there’s a commitment to the ridiculous, a coherent story is less important. As it is, “Hangmen” thoroughly wrings its premise dry, but anyone trying to find deeper meaning in McDonagh’s play will be left hanging.
“Hangmen” opened at the John Golden Theatre on April 21, 2022.
Review Photo: Joan Marcus
Creative: Written by Martin McDonagh; Directed by Matthew Dunster; Scenic Design by Anna Fleischle; Costume Design by Anna Fleischle; Lighting Design by Joshua Carr; Sound Design by Ian Dickinson and Autograph.
Producers: Robert Fox, Jean Doumanian, Elizabeth I. McCann, Craig Balsam, Atlantic Theater Company, Jon B. Platt, Len Blavatnik, Richard Fishman, John Gore Organization, Stephanie P. McClelland, David Mirvish, The Shubert Organization, Jamie deRoy/Sandy Robertson, Patrick Myles/Alexander ‘Sandy’ Marshall, M. Kilburg Reedy/Excelsior Entertainment and The Royal Court Theatre.
Cast: Alfie Allen, Tracie Bennett, Owen Campbell, Jeremy Crutchley, Gaby French, Josh Goulding, John Hodgkinson, Richard Hollis, John Horton, Andy Nyman, Ryan Pope and David Threlfall.