Set in a podunk Irish town in the 1930s where cow-gazing counts as a legitimate pastime, Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan is in constant danger of becoming impossibly twee. But McDonagh doesn’t just Synge for his supper. Much as he did in plays like Pillowman and films like In Bruges, he tosses narrative surprises in the path of his charmingly eccentric characters that keeps them — and us — perpetually on our toes.
Being en pointe is a particular challenge for the title character, young orphan Billy Claven, an outcast in his hometown in more ways than the obvious. Disabled since birth, he’s also a daydreaming bookworm with an unfortunate haircut who quietly crushes on the local egg-tossing hooligan (a spunky Sarah Greene). But when Hollywood filmmakers come to a nearby island dangling promises of screen tests and a lush life in America (as Robert Flaherty did for his real-life 1934 quasi-documentary Man of Aran), Billy sees his chance to escape and he seizes it.
Daniel Radcliffe, who’s emerged as a fine stage actor since hanging up his Nimbus 2000 broomstick in a decade of playing Harry Potter on the big screen, plays Billy with a crafty mix of guile and vulnerability. His Irish accent is more than passable and while he doesn’t stint from the role’s physicality ? curling his left hand and stiffening his left leg throughout the show ? he refrains from milking the disability for easy sympathy.
Indeed, there’s an admirable matter-of-fact quality to Michael Grandage’s exquisite and often uproarious revival, which successfully ran last summer in London with the same cast. Yes, McDonagh has stuffed this slight but well-wrought 1997 play with stock characters such as the long-winded local gossip (Pat Shortt), his crotchety drunk of a mother (June Watson, a deadpan delight), and a pair of spinster shopkeepers (Ingrid Craigie and Gillian Hanna) who serve as Billy’s adoptive aunties even they as recognize his prospects with parochial clarity. (”Poor Billy’ll never be getting kissed. Unless it was be a blind girl,” says one, prompting the other to cluck, ”A shame too, because Billy does have a sweet face if you ignore the rest of him.”)
Thanks to McDonagh’s clever writing and the sharply drawn performances by Radcliffe & Co., these seeming stereotypes keep upending our expectations — and their own — as they spin their yarns and shade some closely held truths. This is one of McDonagh’s lighter works, without his usual burst of Tarantino-esque violence, but there’s enough edginess to pull the story back from the cliff’s edge of sentimentality. A