Gamm Theatre’s ‘Hangmen’ Puts the Humor in Macabre

by | Nov 9, 2023

Above: From left to right: David Ensor (James Hennessey), Jack Clarke (Guard), John Cormier (Guard), Gabriel Graetz (Syd Armfield), Steve Kidd (Harry); In doorway: Steven Liebhauser (Doctor), and Bruce Kaye (Governor). Photo by Cat Laine

Crime and punishment

The Gamm Theatre’s latest production, the Martin McDonagh play Hangmen, is a dark playful comedy/thriller set in Northern England in the early sixties, at the time when capital punishment was being abolished. While capital punishment is ostensibly the subject, it’s not the heavy, pedantic issue play you might expect, rather exploring how competing desires for fame, mischief and most importantly vengeance, underlie what we call justice, and persist with or without it. 

The playwright McDonagh makes such clever use of stock characters that there’s an instant familiarity with the play’s inhabitants, and a sort of intuited resolution as inevitable as a falling sword or the first act gun on the wall. To some extent that clear setup allows the audience to step out of the carefully wrought trap and taste what the Anglo-Irish playwright is cooking. At the same time, thanks to careful pacing and sturdy staging, it’s equally easy to sit back and enjoy the rollercoaster ride. 

Hangmen is sort of like if the sitcom Cheers had a murder-mystery night that turned frightfully real. It’s set in a pub, run by Harry, a man who attained notoriety as a hangman, and frequented by a trio of alcoholic bootlickers and a drunken police inspector, their manners mirroring Norm/Cliff’s buffoonery and Dr. Crane’s sullen grimace, respectively. 

After an opening scene not unlike the curtain raisers sitcoms use, wherein a man proclaims his innocence to his last moment, we’re introduced to the gang and Harry, who rules his pub like an emperor. He’s dodging a local reporter trying to pin him down on his feelings about the end of capital punishment and his rival, the country’s generally acknowledged top hangman, Albert Perrepoint, which kindles Harry’s competitive rage.

Of course, Harry is a big blowhard, and his wife Alice (Kramden?), long-suffering his autocratic manner and self-regarding talk. Their daughter Shirley is a typical, somewhat homely teen, who finds her parents stifling. Into this tableau steps Peter Mooney, a self-described “menacing” man from London that’s conspiring with a former protege of Harry’s, yet has intents of his own to “shake things up.” In the course of consecutive stage evenings we watch a man-too-big-for-his-britches find himself waste deep in a mess of his own making.

Seated: Gabriel Graetz (Syd Armfield); Standing: John Hardin (Peter Mooney). Photo by Cat Laine

The play explores these dark hijinks with such a lighthearted hand that it often feels like a farce. There’s the deaf fellow who needs everything repeated, even the subtext. There’s the guy who’s always saying dumb things so that Harry can slap him down and tell him he’s stupid. And of course, there’s the cock of the roost, Harry, who like his spiritual forefather, Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden, is a powder keg of insecurity and grievance casting about for a match.

With such rather broad characters, the play’s humor lands fairly easily, despite cultural differences and lexicon that divert a handful of lines. Not enough can be said about the crispness of the staging and performance. They make effective use of a secondary “upstairs” set to leaven the claustrophobia of a mostly one-set show, and the play moves along at a good clip, particularly in the second act, when the loosely laid strings and rigging of a slower first act catch a big gust of action.

From the sound production – which employs contemporaneous early British Invasion music as a scene setter – to the homey but properly spacious pub, the environs are carefully rendered without being busy. The performances are strong across the board, though John Hardin really bites into the menacing weirdo Mooney in a way that makes him even more believable, and Steve Kidd is impressive in the lead role, Harry, which requires significant range, particularly to engender what sympathy’s out there for a has-been, second-rate killer with an Archie Bunker complex.

It’s sort of an extraordinary play in that there’s enough meat on the bone for those who like their theatre serious, relatively straightforward plotting and characters that don’t require the audience to fall back on the program as a study guide, and enough laughs and pace to lose yourself in the action. It moves like a Neil Simon play, but the tone’s closer to Harold Pinter or Edward Albee*, which is a terrific place to put your target. 

*Indeed, Gamm’s next production in January is Albee’s most famous play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?

Hangmen, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday through Sunday, November 2-26. 7:30 p.m., with an additional 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday. Gamm Theatre. 1245 Jefferson Blvd, Warwick, RI02886. 401-723-4266. [email protected] 

Chris Parker is a freelance journalist (The Guardian, Undark, Daily Beast, Billboard) and author of the book, King James Brings The Land a Crown, about the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2016 championship. He lives in Providence.

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