Martin McDonagh on growing up (or not growing up...)

Tue, 04/03/2012

Read this New York Times Article about Martin McDonagh on A Behanding in Spokane.

Is He Mellower? Ask the Guy Missing a Hand

Published: March 2, 2010
Source: nytimes.com
 

FOUR years ago Martin McDonagh, the celebrated playwright whose flamboyantly gruesome dark comedies have brought smashed skulls, child murder and other carefully calibrated outrages to Broadway, shocked the theater world in an entirely new way.

At the height of his creative powers and popularity, he decided to quit the stage while he was on top. Explaining that he was repeating himself and needed to do some growing up, he told The New Yorker, “I’ve said enough as a young dramatist.” He was 35.

His early retirement didn’t last long. After writing screenplays and directing his first feature, the cult hit “In Bruges,” Mr. McDonagh, who turns 40 this month, has returned with “A Behanding in Spokane,” a work he wrote last year that shows no signs of mellowing adulthood.

Running at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater, the politically incorrect thriller follows a racist psychotic played byChristopher Walken who threatens to kill two small-time crooks (Zoe Kazan and Anthony Mackie) unless they returning his missing hand as promised. Reflecting on his show during a recent interview, Mr. McDonagh said with a laugh, “I realize that I am never going to grow up.”

In 1994, in less than 10 months, Mr. McDonagh banged out his first seven plays while sequestered in a house in an Irish neighborhood of London. He described their animating theatrical philosophy simply: “Guns. Explosions. Blood.” For the next dozen years these entertaining works, from “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” (which he wrote in eight days) to his most ambitious drama, “The Pillowman” (written in two and a half weeks), were produced in London and then New York, with the exception of “The Banshees of Inisheer,” a portrait of an aging writer with declining skills that Mr. McDonagh wants to revisit when he’s older.

When he started working on “Behanding,” he said, he intended to recreate his original burst of artistic inspiration but found himself quickly paralyzed. After all, he wasn’t some unknown writer anymore. There were expectations to live up to. “So I decided I’m just going to write something trashy,” he confessed. “It could be a runt of a story, which it is, in a good way.”

Mr. McDonagh began with the image of a man shooting a gun into a closet, where the audience could hear the sound of someone struggling inside: Gun? Check. Explosion? Check. Blood? Probably. Following this gambit is a series of familiar McDonagh elements: airborne body parts, unexpectedly sensitive killers and a propulsive, outlandish plot. And once he finished a draft, he realized that he couldn’t just stick it in a drawer. “I was going to do a Salinger and disappear,” he said. “Then I thought, I want to have some fun.”

Sitting in the theater district restaurant Angus McIndoe, Mr. McDonagh appeared boyishly handsome with a can’t-help-myself grin that accompanies the most recklessly candid sense of humor to be found in a Broadway playwright. After a few drinks he mused merrily about what would happen if the elderly woman sitting at a nearby table pulled out a firearm and started shooting. If this reporter was killed, he said, he would volunteer to finish the article. “He was having fun when his face got shot off” is how his tribute would go.

As for dying, the worst way, he said with the sureness of a man who had given the question serious consideration, is to be tortured to death. The best? Eaten by a lion. Wouldn’t that actually involve terrible pain and suffering? “Sure, at the time,” he said matter-of-factly. “Fifty years down the line it would be amazing, especially for a playwright. They would always remember you.”

Mr. McDonagh said that working in film had made him more ruthless in editing (“A Behanding” is 90 minutes) and increasingly determined to show, not tell. “There’s nothing that you can’t show onstage,” he said.

“Movies do that, they tell you,” he added, shaking his head. “Why can’t you do that? Just stop being so lazy. What century is this?”

He is also dreaming of America more than ever, in his work and life. He has little positive to say about his home city, London, which he calls “the rudest place.” As for its theater scene, putting it in the context of soccer, he compares the British stage to “Greek second division.” In his formulation, New York is the World Cup.

That sound you hear is teacups crashing. Mr. McDonagh plans to move to New York and hopes to develop a partnership with the Atlantic Theater Company, where “Behanding” was originally going to be produced.

“I could knock a play out for them every year and have a slot in the season” he said, adding that some of them would be good, others wouldn’t. Flashing his devilish smile, he said, “I should probably tell them this first.”

The Atlantic’s artistic director, Neil Pepe, sounded open to the idea. “If he can knock them out,” he wrote in an e-mail message, “I’ll put them on.”

Not only is “Behanding” Mr. McDonagh’s first world premiere in New York, it’s also his first play set in the United States. He has always had a complicated relationship with his cultural identity. His previous plays portray a brutal, utterly unromantic small-town Ireland, and while he is considered one of the most important living Irish playwrights, he was actually born in London and has lived there his entire life.

In an interview four years ago Conor McPherson, a Dublin writer of similar stature, questioned how Irish he really was. “More like stage Irish,” he told me.

Mr. McDonagh responded to this comment with a flash of anger, disregarding a pledge he had made minutes before to give up harshly judging other living writers in the press, firing off one of those hilariously belligerent rants that his characters are known for and that can’t possibly be printed here. Translated from the profane to the mundane, he said he was going to beat up Mr. McPherson next time he saw him.

“That’s on the record,” he said, pointing at my recorder. “Seriously, that’s a ludicrous thing to say. Dublin people think they are the center of the world and the center of Ireland. And they don’t realize that people have to leave Ireland to get work, and they look down on people who do. It strikes me as an odd thing — that someone who grew up in one town thinks they know everything about a nation and a diaspora.”

Then that sly smile returned as he realized that he had just started a public spat with aTony Award-winning playwright. Mr. McDonagh paused, looked down at his drink and tried again: “I quietly take issue with him.”