July 14, 2010 / 2:02 AM / 10 years ago

"The Lieutenant of Inishmore" a gruesome pleasure

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - It all starts with a black cat, Wee Thomas by name, who gets his brains bashed out on a lonely dirt road on the island of Inishmore in County Galway. From that point on, Martin McDonagh’s “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” takes off like a rocket — a brilliant, unpredictable rocket — and doesn’t look back until the stage is littered with ... well, therein lies the tale.

“Inishmore,” running at the Mark Taper Forum through August 8, is a cheerfully bizarre play, funny as only the Irish can be, and not for the faint of heart. If the sight of stage blood makes you woozy, see a vampire film instead where the people and effects are likely to be prettier. The play is an odd mixture of violence, sadism, torture, sentimentality and laughter that never pulls back — nor do the actors — from graphically chewing what the playwright has bitten off, including the scenery.

The title character is young 1930s revolutionary Padraic, played by Chris Pine as a babyfaced psychopath with the mind of a spoiled child. Padraic lives for only two things: a free and united Ireland and his beloved cat Wee Thomas, whom he has left behind in the care of his cantankerous father, Donny (Sean G. Griffin), while he’s out torturing or killing whomever he can lay his hands on.

The tale unfolds like an ironic comedy of errors and deceptions when Wee Thomas is killed and the killer appears to be Davey (Coby Getzug), a 17-year-old local who is friendly with Donny. Both are scared to death of Padraic, whose reputation for violence and madness is well known. They devise a cockeyed scheme to hide the cat’s death from Padraic, but the plan misfires in a stupendous series of reversals that are horrific and hilarious. This is a comedy so black that at times you have to rub your eyes in disbelief as well as to wipe away the tears of laughter.

Also central to the play is Mairead (Zoe Perry), Davey’s deadeye sister who can shoot out an eye — bovine or human — at 60 yards with her trusty air rifle. Mairead loves Padraic, would do anything for him and shares his affection for cats. As it turns out, this affection leads to a consummation devoutly not to have been anticipated.

What’s most remarkable about the writing is the way it captures in comic terms a particular kind of madness that has infected Ireland for most of the 20th century. There is great anger and sadness lying just beneath the savagery and peculiar sentimentality. Director Wilson Milam has been with the play since its debut in 2001 in England and clearly knows what makes it tick as well as where the laughs are.

Pine and Perry make a fine team of natural-born killers with a shared love of cats. Andrew Connolly, Kevin Kearns and Ian Alda lend strong support as members of Padraic’s harebrained splinter group that have reason to regret turning against him. Brett Ryback plays an entire scene upside down and makes it look easy. Special kudos to the tech and property people who put together each complicated (and messy) detail so flawlessly. Twice a day on Saturdays and Sundays? Impossible.

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