Conor McPherson was only 23 when The Good Thief was first staged in Dublin in 1994. This one-man show was quite different then, for it included an intermission, slide projections and frequent intrusions for recitations from philosophical writings. Through the years the piece has been distilled to its essence, and surely for the better. Now it is simply a yarn, a 65-minute intermissionless monologue about a paid thug who is forced to flee Dublin after he mucks up a job in which he was supposed to "scare" a fellow who had been giving his underworld boss a hard time.
The title, The Good Thief, remains enigmatic; any allusions to St. Dismas are elusive. (The piece's original title, The Light of Jesus, is even more confusing.) Perhaps the original version included some built-in religious allegory, but what we get here seems to be more influenced by Mickey Spillane or Elmore Leonard than by the Bible. This Good Thief is raw and lean. The story grabs the viewer in the first sentence — "Let's begin with an incident" — and never lets go. At times the terse prose is outrageously funny. (In complaining a-bout a shoe repairman he'd been dispatched to harm, our mercenary protagonist pauses in his narrative long enough to tell us, "I hate people with skills who can do stuff." After the laugh he continues, "It's a small quibble, but I refuse to constrain my personality.") The tenor of the piece will swing from comedy to pummeling violence on the turn of a comma.
Joe Hanrahan, who scored a great success a few years ago in St. Nicholas, a later McPherson solo recitation that has to do with vampires, does a sensational job of taking us into his confidence and never letting our minds wander — at least not in a negative way. I did occasionally find myself trying to imagine Sterling Hayden with an Irish brogue, because the narrator-thug so reminded me of Dix Handley, the hooligan hero in John Huston's Asphalt Jungle. He also brought to mind George C. Scott's doomed gangster in the B-movie thriller The Last Run. But then Hanrahan would take a pause to bring us back into his confidence, and I would dutifully follow.
This Midnight Company production has been directed by Sarah Whitney, who might be responsible for Hanrahan's canny ability to establish the characters we need to know. A lot of names get mentioned here. But whenever a really important character is introduced — the sluttish Greta, saloon owner Joe Murray, the psychotic Vinnie Rourke — Hanrahan cleverly slows down the narrative to make sure we're listening. Smart, too, to precede the show with the Beatles singing "Lady Madonna." The lyric "see how they run" sets us up the next hour.
McPherson has gone on to write several well-received full-length plays. (Just this week The Seafarer ended a six-month Broadway run.) This is early material, not as nuanced or layered as the spooky St. Nicholas. It has the feel of a writing exercise more than the work of a dramatist with something on his mind. But to sit in a barroom at Dressel's Pub and listen to a guy with a glass in his hand tell a tale of mayhem — and tell it so well — is a special kind of pleasure. And if it happens to be pouring buckets outside the barroom window as this tale gets spun, it's no great stretch to imagine all that rain as kind of theatrical benediction.
Early on in The Good Thief, our unlikely hero gets captured by some IRA types who plan to smash his legs with a sledgehammer. "I didn't want to be a cripple for the rest of my life," he tells us. Which is to say that he didn't want to be like Billy, the sadly endearing teenage protagonist of The Cripple of Inishmaan, which is currently receiving a dandy production at Webster University's Conservatory of Theatre Arts. Cripple is an early play by Martin McDonagh, first staged when he was only 26. McDonagh went on to build a career writing dark works like The Pillowman and The Lieutenant of Inishmore (which the Rep will stage next season). The offbeat movie In Bruges, which he wrote and directed, was released last month. Cripple is probably the playwright at his most benevolent. Yet even here a streak of malice pervades the proceedings.
The story is set in 1934 on Inishmaan, one of the remote Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland. Not a lot happens on Inishmaan; it's big news when a goose bites a cat on the tail. So imagine the furor when word arrives that Robert Flaherty, an American filmmaker, is coming to a neighboring island to make a movie (Man of Aran). No one wants to be cast in this movie more than Cripple Billy (Nathan Lee Burkhart), whose life has been reduced to the tedium of constant taunts. Billy's legs and hands are at odd angles with his body. It's almost as if the winds that constantly sweep Inishmaan have twisted him askew.
"You shouldn't laugh at other people's misfortunes," Billy admonishes. But you'd have to be a stone not to laugh at these goings-on, which find humor in the most mundane facets of daily life. McDonagh has assembled a colorful array of quirky characters, beginning with Billy's two adopted aunts (Corinne Germain, Abby E. Haug), whose love for their ward does not preclude recognizing his shortcomings. ("Billy does have a sweet face if you ignore the rest of him," one sister suggests. "Well he doesn't really," the other admits.) Then there is Johnnypateenmike (Brian White), the daft human newspaper, and Babbybobby (Cesar Garcia), whose boat could transport Billy over to Inishmore, where the movie's being made. But how to get around the fact that everybody knows a crippled fellow in a boat is bad luck? Nor let us forget the sensuous, foul-mouthed Helen (Ashley Price), a seventeen-year-old terror, especially when she tries to give a history lesson about England's domination over Ireland and fresh eggs are at hand. These loopy characters beguile us in a tale that seems fresh and original — but which in fact is not all laughs, for there are mysteries to unearth and sadness looms always just over the horizon.
In addition to the charming cast that has been directed by Doug Finlayson to deliver just the right blend of oddball and pathos, the design elements are something wonderful: weather-beaten costumes by Heather Bohrer that seem to have been dipped in the Meramec River; a sound design by Zena Rae Yeatman that evokes the incessant surf of the sea without distracting from the action; lighting by Lauren Wright that warns us when the action is beginning to darken even though the dialogue remains sprightly. Best of all is the scenic design by Tia Dennis, a stunning unit set that evokes all the extremes that are Ireland, from its breathtaking beauty to its sere barrenness. And there in the background, rather like the mainland's famed Cliffs of Mohr, are bluffs whose promontories gaze west like a finger extended from a fist, forever pointing to the distant glamour and disillusionment that are America.