The one thing you can count on with a Martin McDonagh play or movie is that there’ll be no time to relax and settle in before the real story begins. McDonagh believes in grabbing our attention not only in the first scene but early in the first scene. In his current “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,” we witness a man (Gilles Geary) falsely accused of murder being strung up and hanged, his body falling through a trap door in the stage.
“Hangmen” opened Monday at Off Broadway’s Atlantic Theater Company after a run at London’s Royal Court Theatre, and it is vintage McDonagh, not just for its many Grand Guignol effects but for the ways in which evil is benignly wrapped around the most ordinary and normal of circumstances.
On the surface, no one is more ordinary and normal than the hangman himself, Harry (Mark Addy), 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 and Harry wonders 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.
Harry is 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 executioner feels about being abruptly retired. Harry turns out to be a reporter’s dream, and soon this ex-hangman is verbally trashing another ex-hangman (Maxwell Caulfield) who killed many more people in his murderous career, but since those dead included Nazis and women Harry maintains a moral superiority.
Harry is a banal monster of the worst kind, and Addy’s outsize body, voice and performance let us know he’s never had a doubt in his life — and that not only includes legal murder but running his pub and pushing around his wife (Sally Rogers) and teenage daughter (Gaby French, shifting nicely between moody and morose).
Harry’s absurdly skewered morality is also shared by his erstwhile assistant, Syd (Reece Shearsmith), 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.
Addy’s performance is so overpowering that it leaves almost no oxygen for any other actor on stage. Matthew Dunster’s direction, however, beautifully counters this force of nature with the far slyer, edgier performance of Johnny Flynn, whose Mooney abruptly invades Harry’s sacrosanct space one day. Mooney is that archetypal intruder who signals with his first request for a pint and peanuts that he’s a nemesis to be reckoned with. While everyone else basks in this pub owner’s perverse celebrity, Mooney is making plans to take Harry down through his lump of a daughter.
Mooney and Syd hatch a plot to teach Harry a lesson, only to learn the hard way that when a man has been responsible for 233 hangings, it’s awfully hard for him to give up the habit.
As Harry’s wife, Rogers turns the character’s late-in-the-game complicity into a genuine shocker. Caulfield’s menace is also riveting. He has a way of staring down other characters without ever seeming to open his eyes. Only some of the pub’s hangers-on are written and played a bit too broadly. Then again, we’ve met these dim-witted townspeople in other McDonagh plays, especially the “Leenane” trilogy.