The title of Martin McDonagh's dark comedy "A Behanding in Spokane" is a small exercise in truth in advertising. As you've already guessed, someone, perhaps the central character, loses a hand.
But knowing the actor who played that central character in the play's 2010 Broadway premiere puts McDonagh's strange play in proper context and fast. The lead? The dry, strangely droll and macabre Christopher Walken.
As Carmichael, a bitter and bigoted but persistent man in search of his missing left hand for 27 years and counting, he was the acerbic center of McDonagh's play.
The Hive Theatre Company brings the Utah premiere of "A Behanding in Spokane" to Sugar Space in Salt Lake City over two weekends, May 3-4 and 10-11. The production promises to preserve McDonagh's original vision of human tenacity, but with its own unique grace notes. Those notes are sometimes difficult to unearth from the script's salty language, said director Sam McGinnis.
"Just tackling the content of the show is a challenge. You have to stage it so that it's not just a show about strong language," McGinnis said. "It's the old story of a hero on a journey, but this time on a mission to find his severed hand. He's essentially the villain of the show, but also the one you feel for the most."
And who wouldn't have just a little empathy for someone who loses a hand to a band of "hillbilly bastards" who hold your wrist to a train track? In McDonagh's world, empathy more or less ends when someone says he has a hand to sell.
For "A Behanding in Spokane," that salesman is Toby, played in Hive Theatre Company's production by Lonzo Liggins. He's joined by his girlfriend, Marilyn. The couple are prone to arguments, as is the entire cast of characters.
The play is cut from familiar cloth for those who've seen or read McDonagh's past plays. Born of Irish parents near London, McDonagh made his mark in 1996 with "The Beauty Queen of Leenane," about a twisted mother-daughter relationship in which the mother continually pours her urine down the kitchen sink. Another of McDonagh's plays that year, "The Cripple of Inishmaan," dealt similarly with how people react to life's darker, even disabling, disappointments.
"[Carmichael] is so much fun. He's unsavory. But you've got to admire his determination and whatever that brings forth," said Jeffrey Owen, who plays Carmichael.
Liggins said his first read of Toby in the script reminded him of Samuel L. Jackson's Jules Winnfield in Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction."
"The script was outrageous at first," Liggins said. "The hardest part of getting it right is making sure my character is believable a voice of sanity in all the insanity going on, even if my character is every bit as bizarre as everyone else onstage."
As McDonagh's script chews the scenery of Carmichael's run-down hotel room, and eventually the characters themselves, McGinnis said the audience is left to meditate on what it is that keeps the human species running despite all it can suffer and endure. Carmichael's long-lost hand becomes a potent metaphor of power and control, Liggins said.
"The drama becomes an undying need to feel whole, not only with the character, but the human need to feel whole in general," Liggins said. "He searches for 27 years to feel like everyone else, essentially. There's a deep desperation in his character."
For McGinnnis, the play reveals that the rallying cry of never giving up can become an end in itself, with the power to both preserve and destroy the purity of motivation.
"The human race is a very determined species. It doesn't matter who they are, they fight for what they believe in. They never once give up on what they're fighting for," McGinnis said.
'A Behanding in Spokane'
When • May 3, 4, 10 and 11, 8 p.m.
Where • Sugar Space, 616 E. Wilmington Ave. (2190 South), Salt Lake City.
Tickets • $12. For mature audiences. Visit http://www.TheHiveTheatre.blogspot.com