In one very important respect, Daniel Radcliffe may be the hardest working star on Broadway today. The 2013-14 season is currently awash with actors sporting illustrious TV and movie resumes, but none does more to dispel his Hollywood past than Radcliffe in “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” a revival of Martin McDonagh‘s play that opened Sunday at the Cort Theatre.
First, about all those TV and movie stars now on Broadway. Many of them are here courtesy of premium-price ticketing, which has made it possible for plays to recoup in a few weeks, if the above-the-title wattage is great enough. Hence, Franco, O’Dowd, Washington, Cranston, Harris, Hall, Radcliffe, etc. are all holding court within a few blocks of each other in midtown Manhattan.
Radcliffe was last seen on Broadway three years ago not in a play but the musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” to which he brought his “Harry Potter” impish persona. Some of that charm, plus his signature soulful gaze, is on display in “Inishmaan,” but even his credible singing and dancing in “How to Succeed” never brought to mind Hollywood’s great song-and-dance man James Cagney of the staccato cadence, buttocks-out, legs-stiff, feet-tapping school of performance that only he could do. Until Radcliffe in McDonagh’s play.
Radcliffe plays, of course, “Cripple Billy,” as everyone on the very unforgiving in-every-way-possible island of Inishmaan calls him in the year 1934. The actor radically contorts his body but moves with a lithe grace that cannot disguise the enormous chiropractic bills the show’s producers must be paying to sustain this kind of performance eight days a week. Plus, there’s his big tour de force scene in the second act when he’s completely wracked with the painful effects of incipient tuberculosis. Radcliffe is so convincing the audience coughs back in utter sympathy.
In addition to having TB and being called a cripple, Billy is also told he’s a not very attractive boy. Now that’s a real problem for Radcliffe, since it’s a difficult choice in the current Broadway good-looks contest to decide who has the more stunning portrait: Radcliffe’s on the front of the “Inishmaan” Playbill or James Franco‘s Gucci ad on the back of it. In a perverse way, Radcliffe’s camera-ready face gives some validity to his character’s dream to go to Hollywood, facilitated by Robert Flaherty’s recent filming of the “Man of Aran” documentary on the island.
Much less credible is the girl Billy wants to kiss, Helen, played by Sarah Greene in a broad performance that comes complete with bright red curls that make her the spitting image of Emma Stone in “The Help.” If this Helen and Billy get together it won’t be a miracle, as Billy’s aunties (that divine duo Ingrid Craigie and Gillian Hanna) might put it, but the greatest meeting of two beauties since Rodin’s “The Kiss.”
The production is a British import, from the Michael Grandage Company, which, except for the two aforementioned faces, is aptly forbidding in a Stonehenge kind of way. Christopher Oram designed the very impressive rotating set, as well as the costumes.
As endearing as Radcliffe makes Billy, McDonagh’s play really belongs to the women who co-star as his “pretend” aunties, and Craigie and Hanna hang on to their adopted nephew like two determined barnacles. Under Grandage’s direction, these two actresses take McDonagh’s penchant for rustic cuteness – people who talk to stones, gossip about the cows – and make it sing with genuine humor. Less credible is the play’s two big revelations, about the cause of Billy’s physical impairment, which feel stuck onto the ending. And it wouldn’t be a McDonagh play without some hilarious and/or ghastly episode of physical destruction. Here, the egg-smashing scene between Helen and her brother (Conor MacNeill) emerges as an unfunny overreach that, while lacking any blood, is a Grand Guignol display signifying not much of anything and, no doubt, a big mess to clean up after the curtain drops.