The gasp-and-guffaw-inducing surprises come fast and furious in British-born, Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s “A Behanding in Spokane,” the first of his many lauded and mordant comedies to be set on this side of the pond.
Rest assured there are no buckets of blood in this latest play by the author of “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” “The Pillowman,” the film “In Bruges” and much more. (In his “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” produced a few years ago by Berkeley Repertory Theatre, the stage was literally awash with the gory stuff.)
But do be prepared for all the violence, the sadism and the black humor that McDonagh’s known for in this SF Playhouse production.
The play’s central figure is a menacing, racist creep named Carmichael (the ever-excellent Rod Gnapp, striking a delicate balance between the character’s comic and scary attributes).
As Carmichael tells it, he lost his left hand as a teenager 27 years ago when a group of “hillbillies” tied it to a railroad track so a train could sever it. The greatest indignity of all: as he stumbled home, they waved goodbye to him from a distance — with his own hand.
Since then, Carmichael’s rage has been festering; he has been trying to find that long-lost appendage, which is rightfully his, he says. He’s a stickler for the mot juste and the appropriate idiomatic expression — throughout this “sad, decaying nation.”
Now, a pair of youthful and hapless scam artists, Toby (a nervous, innocent-faced Daveed Diggs) and his babbling girlfriend, Marilyn (Melissa Quine, impossibly long-legged and wide-eyed), claim to have found the real thing and want to sell it back to him.
They meet for the dubious-sounding transaction in a hotel room (Bill English’s perfectly appointed set, right down to the ever-so-slightly frayed wallpaper).
The hotel receptionist, the deceptively bland Mervyn (a wonderfully low-key turn by Alex Hurt), has a few bizarre and dreamy monologues, one in particular in which he fantasizes being heroic in a variety of situations.
You won’t like any of these low-lifes — not the ruthless, obsessive, amoral Carmichael, nor Mervyn, who’s lonely, mousy and dangerous because he has nothing to lose, nor the helpless victims, dim-bulb Marilyn and blubbering Toby.
But director Susi Damilano knows how to ratchet up the tension, absurd and implausible as it all is, and this superb SF Playhouse ensemble takes you on an outrageously dark and funny journey.
Presented by SF Playhouse
Where: 533 Sutter St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; closes June 30
Tickets: $20 to $70
Contact: (415) 677-9596 or www.sfplayhouse.org