Suppose for a moment that Quentin Tarantino decides to tackle the gravedigger scene in Hamlet. Figure he leaves the basics as they are: The chief digger is still unearthing old corpses to plant new ones, but now he has a dimwitted assistant who wonders, among other things, why the bodies they’re digging up don’t have penises. Add some smartass dialogue, a few bottles of liquor, and a too-chummy cop who happens to be the brother of the assistant.
Then have a body disappear (the deceased wife of the digger) so that the dialogue can assume a bit of menace. Before long, you’ll have skull fragments flying and blood soaking into shirt fronts, all of it accompanied, somewhat disconcertingly, by audience laughter.
That’s a fair description of the central portion of Martin McDonagh’s comedy A Skull in Connemara, a Halloween treat from the folks at Washington Stage Guild. The play has a few soul-stirring corners that aren’t getting as much illumination in Steven Carpenter’s staging as the ghoulishly comic bits, but that’s a reasonable choice given the mood in the body politic and the production’s trick-or-treat timing.
Besides, this middle section of the Leenane trilogy (the others being The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Lonesome West, mounted recently at the Studio Theatre and Rep Stage, respectively) is easily the lightest of the three. Its kinship with the others rests more in the gregarious cruelty of its characters than in either locale or mood. Skull’s folks think the worst of each other, but they never let that stand in the way of sociability. Gravedigger Mick Dowd (Conrad Feininger) is suspected by nearly everyone in town of having killed his wife seven years earlier, but his neighbors keep right on stopping by to sample his whiskey. First to arrive is bingo-addicted Maryjohnny (June Hansen), a grime-smudged crone whose worldview is pretty much summed up in the fact that the mere mention of schoolchildren prompts the epithet “pack o’ whores” and a recitation of how she caught hooligans “weein’ in the churchyard.” That they were 5-year-olds and the incident happened some 27 years ago doesn’t diminish her fury one bit. Her bitterness knows no bounds.
When her grandson, Mairtin (Michael Glenn), happens by, things brighten up a bit. Mairtin’s not the sharpest tool in the shed, especially when he’s had a few pints. Still, he has a curious mind. He’s the fellow who wonders where the “willies” went while exhuming bodies with Mick, and though he spends much of his workday falling into open graves, he’s given to philosophical musings when upright. “I, for one,” he declares firmly, “would rather drown in me own wee than in anyone else’s.” On another occasion, he declares skull-smashing “more fun than hamster-cooking.” This is a man who knows his own mind, even if he often looks to Mick to make it up for him.
Mairtin’s policeman brother, Thomas (Nigel Reed), is every bit as sure of himselfand just as dim. Unable to solve crimes without tampering with evidence, he nonetheless fancies himself a smooth operator. Call him Larry, to Mairtin’s Curly and Mick’s Moe.
Their story, of course, is a bit darker than most Stooge routines, and playwright McDonagh has dressed it with obscenity-peppered Sam Shepard-ish language that has enough of an Irish lilt to make the characters’ pronouncements seem tangentially related to those of the more familiar stage Irishmen with whom Behan and Synge peopled their plays.
Washington Stage Guild’s mounting is neatly designed, with a persuasive peat-and-stone graveyard by Carl F. Gudenius and Tracie Duncan, and appropriately filthy wool costumes by William Pucilowsky. For those seeking an alternative to an evening spent pumpkin-carving, it’s just the thing.
Christopher Wall’s marital-discord drama Couldn’t Say concerns a couple trying to come to terms with their relationship as they deal with the recent death of their son.
Liz (Deborah Kirby) is all but paralyzed by grief. Unable to bring herself to leave her house for three months, she has finally allowed her husband, Ethan (Robert John Metcalf), to take her on a weekend trip. But on the way home they’ve broken down on a deserted road in rural New Hampshire, and when first glimpsed onstage, they’re sitting in their car, watching snow fall gently in the inky darkness.
“People pay good money for views like this,” says Ethan, trying to make the best of things. “All we had to do was break down.”
“I could use a good breakdown,” replies his wife gamely. But they’re not really communicating, and for the next 90 minutes or so, they struggle to find things to say to each other in the Charter Theatre’s production. Wall’s script is at once overwrought and underthoughthe seems to see the situation itself as sufficiently riveting to warrant trapping an audience in a car with essentially uncommunicative charactersand Chris Stezin’s static staging doesn’t do it any favors. Nor does acting that does little to suggest that Ethan and Liz even know each other very well, let alone that they’re married. The evening’s most effective element, by far, is the sculpted back wall that set designer Keith Bridges has fashioned out of bands of twisted metal, managing to suggest both automobile wreckage and Frank Gehry’s new design for the Corcoran. CP