The Lieutenant of Inishmore
By Martin McDonagh
With Chris Pine
Directed by Wilson Milam
Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles
Through August 8, 2010
Chris Pine (left) and Zoe Perry in “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” at the Mark Taper Forum
Photo by Craig Schwartz
What is a critic to do when she is convinced she has seen a good piece of theater but did not particularly like it? Supposedly “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” is a comedy. So it says in the program, and a large portion of the audience was frequently cracking up. I asked myself, how many of these people would be laughing if they were seeing a DVD of it at home? Maybe I am not the person to answer that question, but I have my suspicion that few would be laughing very hard. At intermission I ran into a friend who said, “I like the play, but I can’t figure out why?” It was a sentiment that was almost a corollary to my thoughts.
Subject-wise “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” deals with serious matters. The Irish revolutionary movement occupied much of the 20th century, breaking into widespread conflict in 1967. Like many revolutionary groups, it splintered into factions who often had bloody disagreements among themselves. Social psychologists have posited that the most bitter conflict happens between groups who are most closely identified. The program contains a very useful essay by Amy Dunkelberger about the Irish “troubles” and the “labyrinth of paramilitary organizations” that split from the IRA. The splinters were often splinters from other splinters. A read through her essay before the play begins is very helpful, as details are easily forgotten; some audience members are undoubtedly too young to remember.
Chris Pine is Padraic, the self-appointed, sociopathic lieutenant of a tiny splinter faction that is, in turn, the offspring of much splintering. You might say that his group was one of many great-, great-grandchildren of the IRA and it is on the verge of another amoeba-like divide. Idealistic goals of liberation have been lost in the shuffle. Lost in lofty but vacuous speechmaking, and delivering a bit of torture on the side, his revolution is more about himself than a valid cause. While he and the other characters would be hard put to clearly articulate why the fight was important, none was at a loss spouting bromides of revolution.
Young Davey (Coby Getzug) finds Padraic’s cat, Wee Thomas, dead in the road. He carries it to Padraic’s father (Seán G. Griffin), with whom the lieutenant had entrusted the cat while he was off torturing, shooting, and terrorizing – and maybe some raping and pillaging on the side. The cat was his “only friend in the world”; little wonder. No love is lost between father and son. Out of fear, Donny, the father, tries to pin the blame on Davey, the hapless teenager whose major concern in the world is that he not be taken for a girl because of his prized long hair. Donny is clearly, and justifiably, terrified of his son’s rage.
I could go on with the story, but I do not believe that would particularly illuminate the issue. My friend probably liked it because playwright Martin McDonagh has a skillful way with words. Under the able direction of Wilson Milam, the rapid-fire dialogue is as though it had been written by an Irish David Mamet. I would agree with her that far, and satire generally sits well with me. Where I parted company with her was the fact that the humor was based on the graphically portrayed sadistic actions of the revolutionaries: “Which nipple do you want me to cut off?” politely asks Padraic of the minor drug dealer he has strung up by his heals. That is, he asks this after he has removed a selection of the young man’s toenails. And that is just for openers.
Another essay in the program, “’Tis More Than a Scratch” by Kristin Friedrich, is a lengthy defense of onstage violence. “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” however, exceeds any level of blood-soaked mayhem I have seen onstage. Her apology did little to make it better for me. Friedrich used Shakespeare and Sophocles, in addition to other classics, as examples of time-honored, onstage bloodshed. True enough, but few plays have depicted gory violence so realistically. Act II was especially gruesome. For approximately 20 minutes – as the grand finale – the joint-by-joint, blood-soaked dismemberment of three fresh corpses by Donny and Davey under the gun of Padraic left the stage and the actors awash in blood.
Sue me. A passionate embrace between two blood-drenched actors (Padraic and Davey’s boyish pubescent sister whose claim to fame is her ability to shoot out an eye at 100 feet, a talent honed on a herd of cows) does not strike me as funny nor does it turn me on. I’ll take my satire at a less graphic and more cerebral level. If, however, blood is your thing, by all means rush to see “The Lieutenant of Inishmore.”