An older white man stands in a dingy hotel room. Something in the walls scratches furiously. Exasperated, he opens the closet to reveal a nervous black man who bursts into tears when he spots the older man's gun. The gun fires and the black man slumps still. Then the shooter sits on the bed and anxiously telephones his mother, who hasn't been returning his calls.
This is the opening scene of A Behanding in Spokane, Martin McDonagh's first play set in the U.S. It reveals the Anglo-Irish playwright's usual obsessions: casual and abrupt violence, desperate people and unexpected sentimentality. McDonagh doesn't paint a pretty picture of America, but after this past year it's difficult to argue with the finished portrait.
The current production at St. Louis Actors' Studio is a pretty picture, full of unexpected comedy and as sleek and lethal as the old man's well-maintained pistol — not to mention as ugly as the stump where his left hand should be. That missing hand is the play's subject, and by the end of the show's 90 minutes, you may believe it's the only innocent in America.
Carmichael (Jerry Vogel), the former owner of that absent appendage, is the one with the gun. He's here in this small Indiana town trying to get his hand back. He's been tracking it across the U.S. for 47 years, and his thus futile search has made him mean and wildly inventive when it comes to devising nasty deaths for people who cross him.
Toby (Michael Lowe) is the young man in the closet, and it turns out he's survived that opening gunshot. He and his girlfriend Marilyn (Léerin Campbell) have a left hand they're willing to sell to Carmichael, whom they've seriously misjudged. They thought him just a crazy man with too much money, when in fact Carmichael is dangerously crazy and far smarter than they are. How much smarter is revealed when they try to sell him a black man's hand.
Carmichael is furiously racist, even for an old white guy. His Tarantino-style use of the N-word is exacerbated by Toby being named Toby. (Did McDonagh see Roots? Does he know how foul that word sounds in an American theater, especially when paired with that name?) Marilyn doesn't stand for it, even when Carmichael holds a gun on them, while Toby frantically tries to calm down both her and the man now holding them hostage.
What follows is a tense race against time and death as Marilyn and Toby try to escape the room. The odds aren't great; she's prone to fixating on personal offenses rather than the big picture, and Toby has a habit of crying when he's stressed. Their ace-in-the-hole just might be the hotel's sole employee, Mervyn (William Roth), who shows up to ask Carmichael dumb questions. Mervyn has bizarre daydreams of being a hero, but he bears his own grudge against the couple.
The cast, under the guidance of director Wayne Salomon, wade into this dark story with gusto. Vogel is excellent as Carmichael, a true creep possessed by his dream of getting back what's his. Campbell and Lowe are great as the co-dependent small-town hoods whose relationship problems prove their undoing. But the sneaky star might be Roth, who gives Mervyn an unsettling looniness. What sort of man fantasizes about both being Die Hard's John McClain and having a meaningful relationship with a monkey?
So, this is how McDonagh sees the U.S. We're vengeful, gun-crazy, racist, willing to take insane risks for a quick buck, terrified of taking responsibility for our actions and yet despite it all, we still fancy ourselves the heroes. Broad generalizations, sure, but it's hard not to see ourselves in there somewhere.