Playwright Martin McDonagh is at his grim humor best with “Hangmen,” the Royal Court production of London now presented in New York by the Atlantic Theater Company. Be prepared to laugh and cringe at the same time, thanks to the talent of McDonagh, who also is currently in the news for scripting the film “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”
The play is inherently a hostile comment on capital punishment, but that alone would be too simple, for also involved are ego, competition, parentage, wickedness and perhaps revenge. The tone of “Hangmen” is wrapped in the aura of the 1960s in Lancashire, England. You may have to listen extra hard to penetrate the accents.
At the start we witness the run-up to and the execution of a chap named Hennessy (Giles Geary), defiantly protesting his innocence all the way to his demise at the end of a rope. In addition to giving us a horrific portrait of what a hanging can be like, with dark humor injected here too, we get to meet Harry, the executioner, played with cocky bluster by Mark Addy.
The action subsequently shifts to later at the pub that Harry now runs, complete with its hangers-on characters. Executions have just been banned, and given his fame with the rope, Harry is approached by a persistent young reporter, Clegg (Owen Campbell), whom Harry rejects at first. But when the story does appear, a comment he makes stirs resentment toward Harry by Albert Pierrepoint (Maxwell Caulfield), the hangman noted for dispatching German war criminals.
However, that’s blip in the plot, which takes shape when Mooney (Johnny Flynn), a brash, comically obnoxious stranger arrives and focuses attention on Harry’s teenage daughter, Shirley (Gaby French). Later, when she disappears, Harry is convinced that Mooney has done something harmful to her. As for Mooney, there is a hint that he may be seeking to avenge the execution of Hennessy, but that idea is not developed.
When Mooney returns to the pub, he is seized by Harry, who beats him. puts a noose around his neck and threatens to kill him if doesn’t confess to what he did to Shirley. Mooney is in a lethal predicament, and even here, McDonagh revs up macabre comedy. One can guess what might happen, as the play becomes increasingly grim.
There are some excellent supporting performances, including one by Sally Rogers as Alice, Harry’s wife, whom he orders about and who finds her way to express rebellion. “Hangmen” may leave you pondering its various aspects and meanings after it has kept you riveted by the playwright’s expertise at mixing laughs and horror and by the first-rate acting. At the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street. Phone: 866-811-4111. Reviewed February 11, 2018.