The one thing you can count on with a Martin McDonagh play or movie is that there will be no time to relax and settle in before the real story begins. McDonagh grabs our attention not only in the first scene but early in the first scene. In his 2017 movie “Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri,” a distraught mother rents roadside advertisements to protest the unsolved murder and rape of her daughter. In McDonagh’s 2015 play, “Hangmen,” a man convicted of murder screams for justice before being strung up and hanged, his body falling through a trap door in the stage.
“Hangmen,” which opened Thursday at the Golden Theater after successful runs at Off Broadway’s Atlantic Theater and London’s Royal Court Theatre, is a dark comedy that’s vintage McDonagh. Again, he explores the banality of evil, using Grand Guignol effects to reveal that the most ordinary and normal of circumstances are anything but.
On the surface, no one is more ordinary and normal than the ex-hangman himself, Harry (David Threlfall), who runs a pub in Oldham, Lancashire, in the mid-1960s. The spectacular execution that kicks off the play turns out to have been one of Harry’s last jobs for the government, and now, two years later, death by hanging has been outlawed in England. Poor Harry, he continues to wonder what he’s going to do with all his free time, just as he used to wonder what he was going to have for lunch whenever he killed a man in the morning.
Harry remains something of a celebrity in Oldham, and a local newspaper reporter (Owen Campbell) has come to the pub for an interview to get the inside scoop on how the ex-executioner feels about being abruptly retired. Harry turns out to be a reporter’s dream, and soon this professional killer is verbally trashing another retired hangman. Harry clocked in 233 legal murders. Unfortunately, his competitor here, Albert Pierrepont (John Hodgkinson is stunning in a cameo), lived to execute over 435 people in his 25-year career before he retired in 1956. Mixing fact and fiction, McDonagh delivers one of his sicker twists when Harry exerts moral superiority over Pierrepont. Unlike that real guy, Harry never offed women or Nazis, the latter group being easy sitting ducks, in his opinion.
Harry is a banal monster of the worst kind, and Threlfall’s grand, stoic performance lets us know he has never struggled with a doubt in his life — and that not only includes legal murder but brow-beating his wife (Tracie Bennett, being appropriately desiccated) and dumping on his teenage daughter (Gaby French, being appropriately doltish).
Harry’s absurdly skewered morality finds an echo chamber in his erstwhile assistant, Syd (Andy Nyman, who bumbles with real theatrical flair), who got fired years ago for verbally desecrating a recently hanged man. Is there such a thing as sexually harassing a corpse? Yes, and McDonagh takes us there.
Threlfall’s steely performance creates a black hole that leaves little oxygen for any other actor on stage. Matthew Dunster’s direction wisely uses this negative force to highlight the staccato performance of Alfie Allen (“Game of Thrones”). Playing the same cocky nemesis, Johnny Flynn delivered a far creepier Mooney in the Atlantic Theater production. Allen softens some of those edges. He occasionally overdoes the character’s rapid-fire speech, but manages to frighten when shifting from preening bloke to unhinged psycho without notice. His resemblance to the young Malcolm McDowell adds a sly glimmer of “Clockwork Orange” to the production.
Mooney invades Harry’s sacrosanct space one day to order a pint and signal that he’s a potential lodger from hell. While everyone else basks in this pub owner’s perverse celebrity, Mooney makes plans to take Harry down through his lump of a daughter. He learns the hard way that when a man has been responsible for 233 hangings, it’s awfully hard for him to give up the habit.
In the Atlantic Theater production, some of the pub’s hangers-on were played too broadly. A few of them seemed left over from McDonagh’s “Leenane” trilogy. That’s not the case on Broadway. Owen Campbell, Jeremy Crutchley, Josh Goulding, Richard Hollis, John Horton and Ryan Pope complete the near-perfect ensemble under Dunster’s direction.
“Hangmen” is this Broadway season’s best play.