A man in an overcoat stares out a window in a darkly lit hotel room at the opening of "A Behanding in Spokane." He looks like an assassin in a murder mystery as he lights up a cigarette. And, sure enough, he pulls out a gun as he paces the room. When he hears a muffled noise coming from a closet, he goes over to it, opens the door and fires a shot. We hear the thud of a person falling over. The man closes the door.
"A Behanding," which opened last weekend in a daring production at Gremlin Theatre, is like something out of a David Lynch dream. But it is told by an Irish writer, Martin McDonagh, who occasionally betrays his linguistic roots in the play's diction (the main character talks about when he was "a lad").
On the surface, this one-act drama should be offensive. It is packed with toxic language, and the cast is all misfits and weirdos. But it disarms our objections with wit and charm.
The plot centers on Carmichael (David Tufford), a one-handed bigot with mommy issues who spits a stream of racist, sexist and homophobic slurs. He is looking for his hand, which he claims was severed 27 years ago when he was held down by mean kids. He tells us that the offending youngsters used his hand to wave him goodbye. Cruel.
But Carmichael has a promising lead. Cowardly black pot dealer Toby (Brian J. Evans) and his dumb-as-rocks white girlfriend, Marilyn (Sara Marsh), say they have the lost body part and will sell it back to him for $500. Carmichael has come to meet them at a cheap hotel, and has brought along a big, heavy suitcase.
"A Behanding" also includes Mervyn (standout Luverne Seifert), a hotel clerk with a death wish and a lust to be a hero.
Director Matt Sciple ramps up the tension in his spellbinding production. He builds to each surprise in this taut, compelling staging that really grabbed me in the intimate St. Paul playhouse. Tufford's Carmichael is an obsessive man of mystery. We still don't know all that much about him at play's end, but we're drawn to his dark quirkiness. Marsh and Evans credibly sell their characters, whose relationship gets tested by their different intelligence levels. The two, who are prone to going off on tangents, deliver like squirrels in a bag.
The most compelling performance comes from Seifert, whose character plays dumb to catch wise. He combines Steve Martin-esque intonations with flashes of Jack Nicholson in a production that captivates.