There are no dead cats or dangerous fireplace pokers in The Cripple of Inishmaan, which is easily the gentlest, least violent work penned by the brilliant Irish playwright and screenwriter Martin McDonagh. And in its belated Broadway debut at the Cort Theatre, directed by Tony winner Michael Grandage, this 1996 play often elicits the kind of uproarious laughter one might expect to hear at a vintage Neil Simon comedy. In fact, Grandage and his all-British cast, led by film and stage superstar Daniel Radcliffe, play up McDonagh’s gimlet-eyed humor in exploiting the eccentricities of the residents of a small Irish village – occasionally sacrificing a bit of the piece’s melancholy undertone in the process.
Not much ever happens in Inishmaan, which is why the townsfolk are agog to hear that a Hollywood director has come to make a film in nearby Inishmore. (The film being made is the actual 1934 documentary Man of Aran.) This bit of news is gleefully spread by cantankerous local busybody Johnnypateenmike (the extremely funny Pat Shortt), who treats this development with the same gravitas as an incipient local feud.
Once Johnnypateenmike has delivered this juicy tidbit around town, ultra-feisty and vain Helen McCormick (a well-cast Sarah Greene) and her dimwitted younger brother Bartley (an excellent Conor MacNeill) quickly talk seemingly kind-hearted Babbybobby (Padraic Delaney) into rowing them over to the island, where Helen is convinced a director will snatch her up and take her to Hollywood.
But in reality, no one wants to escape Inishmaan more than “Cripple” Billy Claven (Radcliffe), a physically deformed and “funny looking” young man who feels stifled by his home life, especially the protectiveness of the two older women, sisters Eileen (the superb Gillian Hanna) and Kate (a dithery Ingrid Craigie), who have looked after him since he was a baby and his parents died in a mysterious boating accident. Knowing their objections, Billy forges a note saying he has TB to get Babbybobby to take him along – and we then hear that Billy has been whisked off to Hollywood to “screen test” for a film where he would play a cripple. But when he doesn’t come back for months, there is some question of what Billy’s fate has been.
Fans of Radcliffe should be aware that until the second act of the piece, Billy is rather a minor character in the play. And to his credit, Radcliffe doesn’t treat this show as a star vehicle, blending seamlessly into the top-notch ensemble. However, when his major scenes come towards play’s end, Radcliffe displays his considerable acting prowess and innate charm to make us realize why Billy is, in fact, the show’s title character. Moreover, Radcliffe has clearly worked hard to accurately capture his character’s physical deformities, while never begging for our sympathy.
McDonagh’s local yokels, including Johnnypateenmike’s constantly inebriated mother (the hysterical June Watson), make for very entertaining company for two and a half hours. But with their penchant for talking to stones or breaking eggs on your head, they make Inishmaan the kind of place you enjoy visiting briefly but wouldn’t want to live in.