The first thing you need to know about Martin McDonagh's Lieutenant of Inishmore, which the St. Louis Rep is currently presenting at the Grandel Theater, is not the play's plot or theme or if it has been well directed and performed. The first thing you need to know is the box-office phone number: 314-968-4925. The next thing you should know is that the show only continues until October 12.
Up to now, I have purposely avoided using any adjectives. Descriptions can be limiting, and the moment I label this macabre comedy as scathing or outrageous or excessively bloody, the very accuracy of those terms will dissuade some readers from wanting to attend. Which would be a disservice, because this is an evening of such giddy theatricality as to transcend specifics. From the moment it begins, with the brains of a just-decapitated cat dripping onto the kitchen table in a cottage in the Aran Islands (off the western coast of Ireland), we are pummeled by the unexpected. This is not theater-as-usual; this is theater spiraling through trajectories we rarely travel. Despite violent goings-on (mostly in Act Two) that make Sweeney Todd seem like a walk in the park, we are not so much shocked by the incessant brutality as we are startled by the realization of how hilarious it all is.
The plot spins and careens around Padraic, a "mad feck" of a killer who is too psychopathic to be accepted by the paramilitary Irish Republican Army. Now Padraic is a terrorist with the even more treacherous splinter group, the Irish National Liberation Army. But after he splinters off from the INLA, Padraic is targeted as a loose cannon who needs to be put down like a mad dog. A bad analogy, that, because Padraic hates dogs. He's a cat man, and Wee Thomas has been his sole love for the past fifteen years. The very hint that his beloved pussy might be a little under the weather is enough to send Padraic into paroxysms of grief. Were he to learn that Thomas' exposed brain matter is making a mess of the kitchen table, Padraic might lose it altogether.
Playwright McDonagh, born in London to Irish parents, has emerged as one of the most vibrant and searing voices in world theater today. In daringly original scripts like The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Cripple of Inishmaan and especially The Lieutenant of Inishmore, McDonagh has crafted some of the most pungent and disturbing comedy-dramas of our time.
Kudos to the Rep for hiring several of the key contributors to last year's acclaimed production of Lieutenant at the Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre, including the director, scenic, lighting, sound and special effects designers, and two of the key actors. But this is no touring show; they've all built on their initial success to rethink and deepen the piece. Under Carden's effervescent direction, the cast crackles from beginning to end. David Whalen's Padraic is especially impressive, because his portrayal of a wacko who personifies excess never goes too far. Even when Padraic is eating his cell phone or making love to a fellow extremist (Keira Keeley) with the bloody corpse of Wee Thomas wedged between their bodies, Whalen's performance remains smoothly calibrated.
Among the featured cast, Dan McCabe's Davey and Matt DeCaro's Donny work wonderfully well together. Davey and Donny both bookend and anchor the play. They are its alpha and omega: Young Davey personifies innocence; he doesn't understand anything that's happening. Donny, Padraic's weary father, has seen far too much.
"Worse and worse and worse this story gets," Davey bemoans as the unimaginable becomes reality. "Will it never end?" And of course we realize that he's talking, not merely about Padraic, but of the incessant violence that has wracked Ireland for far too long. Will it never end? Yet in a perverse kind of way, a viewer might find himself hoping that this dazzlingly executed murderous romp never will.