Christopher Walken leads brilliant cast on Broadway

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - Onscreen, Christopher Walken’s oft-imitated shtick has veered into self-parody in recent years.

U.S. actor Christopher Walken speaks before receiving a tribute for his career at the Marrakesh 9th International Film Festival December 5, 2009. REUTERS/Jean Blondin

But seeing it live is a whole other matter: On the evidence of his brilliant performance in Martin McDonagh’s new play, “A Behanding in Spokane,” the actor should have returned to the stage a long time ago.

Fueling the evening with his endlessly entertaining physical mannerisms, offbeat comic timing and hilarious vocal inflections, Walken lifts this slight shaggy-dog story into the comic stratosphere. Add superb support by a blue-chip cast, including Sam Rockwell, Anthony Mackie and Zoe Kazan, and you have one of the most entertaining if bizarre offerings on Broadway.

This marks the talented playwright’s first work to be set in this country as well as the first to originate on Broadway. Premiering it here was a wise move: The play has a distinctively American feel, feeling like a lost Sam Shepard effort from the ‘70s. It runs through June 6 at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater.

Set in a rundown hotel room somewhere in small-town America, it depicts the fateful encounter among four disaffected losers: the one-handed Carmichael (Walken), who has spent the past 47 years trying to retrieve the appendage that a bunch of “hillbilly bastards” forcefully removed when he was a teenager; Toby (Mackie), a low-level scam artist; Marilyn (Kazan), his white-trash girlfriend; and Mervyn (Rockwell), a truly creepy hotel “receptionist” who takes an inordinate interest in his guests’ comings and goings.

Toby and Marilyn have made the mistake of attempting to con Carmichael with the claim that they’re in possession of his errant hand. Upon inspection, it turns out to be not of the Caucasian variety, resulting in his holding them at gunpoint. When they claim that they really do have his hand back in their garage, he runs off to retrieve it, but not before handcuffing them to the radiator and setting a lit candle above an open can of gasoline.

When Mervyn subsequently stops by the room, he’s not particularly interested in helping the couple escape, despite his obvious romantic interest in Marilyn. It turns out he’s still pissed off at Toby, whom he recognizes as the drug dealer who ripped him off years earlier.

As you’ve probably figured out, plotting is not the strong suit of this fast-moving, 90-minute one-act. Rather, it’s the torrent of hilariously profane dialogue that spews out of the vividly drawn characters’ mouths. Walken milks it brilliantly, especially in an instant classic of a monologue in which he speaks on the phone to his elderly mother who has fallen out of a tree (don’t ask). Assuring her that he hasn’t abandoned his racist principles, he points out: “There’s a black man chained to my radiator, and he’s covered in gasoline. Now that’s hardly affirmative action, is it?”

Cannily underplaying in comparison, Rockwell is terrific, infusing his character with a deadpan comic malevolence. His sly verbal tussles with Walken -- especially when Mervyn quietly observes that Carmichael’s story of having his hand ripped off by a moving train doesn’t quite hold water -- are endlessly entertaining.

Mackie and Kazan have less to work with, but they get the job done, with Mackie garnering big laughs with Toby’s increasingly hysterical reactions to the surrounding insanity.

Director John Crowley has staged the proceedings with just the right amount of indulgence to his frequently hamming thespians, expertly navigating the work’s shifts between raucous comedy and simmering menace. Adding greatly to the overall effect is Scott Pask’s superbly tacky hotel room set, with a row of antique footlights providing an appropriately old-fashioned theatrical feel. In terms of substance, “Behanding” pales in comparison to such McDonagh classics as “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” and “The Pillowman.” But in these expert hands, it’s an offbeat experience to be treasured.