Vol. 17, No. 16 – May 1 – May 14, 2024 – A View from House Seats

by Shirley Lorraine

A different viewpoint on death and humor

Few comedies open with a beating and a hanging. The Santa Paula Theater Center’s “Hangmen” by Irishman Martin McDonagh does. From there the comedy is in the hands and ears of the receivers (you, the audience).

Nominated for four Tony awards and recipient of a Laurence Olivier Award in 2003, the play takes on human foibles and the urge to compete, even in areas where competition is uncommon.

The Irish satire is set in 1965, in an old pub owned and operated by Harry, (Richard Kuhlman) well known as the second-best hangman in the country. The death penalty has just been abolished in the United Kingdom and poor Harry is now out of a job. Still, he competes for bragging rights with Pierrepoint (John Webber), acknowledged as the number one hangman. Harry’s cronies (Bill Walthall, Scot Blanchard and Donnie Stroud) solidly back him up, but only as far as a pack of drunken sods who are continually provided with pints of drink can do.

A young, inexperienced journalist (Eric Umali) meets with Harry to get his side of the story. How does he feel being out of a job? While Harry maintains he will not comment, eventually he does, and then some.

Harry’s wife Alice (Jolyn Johnson) and teen daughter Shirley (Emily Redman Hall) do most of the bar duty. Jeff Ham makes appearances as several characters.

Harry’s assistant, Syd (Derek Petropolis), would love to take Harry’s attitude of superiority down a peg and plots with Mooney (James James), a connivingly menacing stranger. Mooney’s actual intent is unclear. Insisting he is menacing, not creepy, Mooney intrigues Shirley into meeting him elsewhere, whereupon she disappears for a period, causing Harry and Alice a great deal of angst. Mooney ultimately taunts the group into placing him in a noose which turns deadly as the group attempts to hide this action from the inspectors.

The highly competent cast carries off their well-rehearsed Irish accents beautifully. So well, in fact, that the accents, combined with unfamiliar Brit-speak language, created a challenge (for me, at least) to follow and find the humor. Credit is given to Erin De Horta as dialect coach.

The detailed interior pub set is impressive. Two 1960’s clothed dancers (presumably a directorial addition) assist with minor scene changes, providing a tinge of the aura of the era. The dancers are Martha Benevides and Keke Navarro.

Artistic Director Jessi May Stevenson has assembled a cast of talents who perform admirably. Action is tight and natural.

While the play may have fared well in the United Kingdom, I personally did not find it to be the comedy I’d hoped for in this “all comedy” SPTC season. Brit humor can be an acquired taste. There was sporadic laughter at specific well-timed lines, However, the underlying premise is one that is not inherently funny, in my opinion. Perhaps I just needed a pint or two.

Hangmen continues through May 12, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. www.santapaulatheatercenter.org or (805)525-4645.

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