When the curtain rose — and, 90 minutes later, when it fell — March 4 on A Behanding in Spokane at the Schoenfeld, a profoundly p.o.-ed Christopher Walken is sitting on the edge of a bed in a dingy hotel, glaring grimly into the abyss that is the audience. He is in time-bomb mode, as only Walken can be — and you know instinctively you are to tread softly around him, if you dare tread at all.
Granted, his character, named Carmichael, has a grievance: He has been festering for 47 years over a lost limb. It seems a half-dozen hillbilly hooligans held his hand on a railroad track and had it severed by a passing train. Then — and this must be the ultimate in adding-insult-to-injury — they had the effrontery to wave goodbye to him with it. "Do you have any idea how that feels?" he fumes in uppercase italics.
Ever since, he has been on the unholiest of crusades to find that hand and get those guys, littering the landscape with cadavers when thwarted or diverted from his goal. Playing sinister eccentrics has been a lifelong specialty with Walken so he needs no roadmap into this hulking psychopath. In his film travels, he has gone so deeply and completely into Grand Guignol, you can get giddy with anticipation about his next shade of black. That's the place you should be at for A Behanding in Spokane.
Playwright Martin McDonagh reached that corner of Horror and Humor in his film-directing debut, "In Bruges," which, despite splattering violence and a hefty body-count, got Golden Globe nods in comedy categories. That's the sensibility at work here, and Walken is the perfect disciple for it. Both play to the Primal Kink in all of us. You just didn't know the guy next to you shared the same bizarre taste. Such is the baggage that Walken brings to McDonagh's compatibly twisted world.
With the Danger signs posted all around Walken, McDonagh opts to inflame him anyway by unloading on his doorstep a clown-car of irritating idiots to try his hair-trigger patience. Marilyn ( Zoe Kazan) and Toby ( Anthony Mackie) are pot-smoking grifters who have the chutzpah and stupidity to try to palm a fake hand off on Carmichael as his own. They wind up doused in gasoline and chained to the pipes, which still doesn't stop her from literally climbing the walls.
A case unto himself is the nosy, nervy, nerdy Melvyn ( Sam Rockwell), who exercises behind his reception desk in causal attire (boxer shorts). He repeatedly interrupts Carmichael's ebb-and-flow with investigative pop-calls, oblivious-to-the-point-of-blindness to his peril. Even with a revolver in his face, he doesn't get it.
[flipbook] The uneasy, courting-danger stand-offs between Carmichael and Mervyn, with their shifting weights of tension and hilarity, provided major delights for the audience, who continued to revel in them at the after-party at Bar Americain where chef Bobby Flay had laid out a varied and elaborate spread of tasty finger-food. Director John Crowley, a 2005 Tony contender for McDonagh's The Pillowman, is returning to Broadway for seconds this season. Earlier, he steered Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig through the heavy waters of A Steady Rain; now, he's back — and with a cast so dead-on it's hard to imagine any other. "That's where we were blessed," he said. "It seems as if each role found its actor rather than us finding the actor. In any event, this one took a long time to cast."
He proves especially successful at bringing out gradations of black humor in his players. "It's just my taste in acting. I like humor that comes out of a dark place, and that ties very tightly into Martin's sensibility so we just figure it out as we go."
It turned out to be quite an eerie spectacle to see a smiling Christopher Walken, but he had earned it — the hard way: with a triumph. It was, he allowed, a long way from High Spirits where he was a chorus boy. He hung up his dancing shoes a year later with his next show, 1965's Baker Street, and only relapsed and slipped back into them for a spectacular sequence in Steve Martin's "Pennies From Heaven" film and a recent all-stops-out television commercial.
The actor, 67 at the end of the month, wasn't awfully enlightening about how he managed to make his part fit his persona so perfectly. "It's a good part," he said.
And what did he especially like about his character? "It's a good part," he said.
Marginally more verbal was Rockwell, who cut short his press interviews — "to be with his family," said the publicist. "Family" was a statuesque blonde he introduced as his girlfriend, Leslie Bibb. "She's in 'Iron Man,'" he offered, meaning both "Iron Man" and the forthcoming "Iron Man 2," currently in post-production. Rockwell was receiving tons of compliments on his scenes with Walken. "It was pretty intense," he had to admit, "and a lot of fun. Chris Walken is a hero of mine."
McDonagh, who turns Four-Oh on the 23rd and will have to stop passing for "prematurely gray," confessed that Walken and Rockwell have long been on his wish list of actors he always wanted to work with, and he was proud of the edgy, oddly balanced scenes that he wrote for them. They come across like a playful cocker spaniel romping with a poised cobra. "Maybe it's a cocker spaniel with rabies," he amended. "There's a dangerous quality about Mervyn. He's never necessarily going to do damage, but he's never frightened, which is kind of a scary combination."
C'mon, didn't he write Carmichael with Walken in mind? "Strangely no, but I can't imagine anyone else other than him ever — which has ruined the play forever because he's a genius. He brings everything to it. There isn't any one in the world who has humor and scariness at the exact same time. He always found the humor in the lines, and he always found the scariness, but he has a way different take on lines than any actor I've ever known, I think. But it works, you know. …It's like a dream to hear the way he plays around with the stuff that I've come up with. It's a joy."
Heretofore, all of his plays have come to Broadway via the Dublin-to-London route, but A Behanding in Spokane was written expressly to premiere on these shores. "It was an American-set play, and, if you want to work with the best American actors, you gotta come here, I think. That was the biggest reason. If you want to go straight to Broadway, you want to attract the biggest and the best."
This one is true to his penchant for putting a place into his title — Inishmore, Connemara, Leenane, Bruges. Has he ever been to Spokane? "I was asleep on a train that passed through there one time. I could have gotten off, but I was kinda tired so I just stayed on till Portland." It's a good omen, he thinks, to have your town in his title. After "In Bruges," despite the bloodbaths he filmed there, "tourism escalated," he beamed. "Everyone goes there now." Kazan, the great filmmaker's granddaughter and already an award-winning actress, plays her young pothead almost consistently in the upper register of hysteria and gets there by revving up to music beforehand. "It requires that level of energy so I deliver that level of energy. I am really tired at the end of every night."
What she likes most about her Marilyn is "how brave she is. Part of her bravery comes out of her stupidity, which I guess is not a great quality, but I think she's extraordinarily brave." This would, she agreed, make her a good match for Mervyn.
On her next Monday off, March 8, Kazan will attend the New York premiere of "The Exploding Girl." She stars in the title role, "a young girl who's home for her spring break from college and has a kind of friendship with a boy that's turning, maybe, into more than a friendship. I think it's extraordinary. It's my favorite thing that I've done, film-wise. I'm really proud of my work in it."
Mackie is also using his time off from the play for movie matters, celebrating the Oscar contention of his new movie, "The Hurt Locker." "I'll be sitting at 'The Hurt Locker' table in L.A. We're off Sunday and Monday. I have no idea how that worked out, but it worked out. I definitely think Kathryn Bigelow is going to win. A lot of people are trying to play it off as she's the female filmmaker, but, believe it or not, she just happens to be the best director who made the best movie of the year."
A Behanding in Spokane gave him a chance to play a new card: "I've never done a comedy before. To be in a Martin McDonagh play and it be a comedy with Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell — you couldn't ask for a better opportunity."
McDonagh, in particular, was fun to work with, he said. "He was there every day of rehearsals, and you can't say that for a lot of writers who aren't as successful as he is. He was open-minded and gave us a lot of information and background about the script and the characters. Everything we needed, he would give to us."
Rockwell's understudy, Dashiell Eaves, is likewise a McDonagh booster. "I would do anything for Martin," he insisted. "I would take the opportunity to work on one of Martin's roles in any capacity — especially this one. I think it's such a great role. To have a job and to work on a role like that — you can count me in."
Eaves was in the original cast of McDonagh's last Broadway bloodbath, The Lieutenant of Inishmore — and got to keep his own head. "My parents keep the cement cast of my head in their sun room."
Numbering among the first-nighters were Peter Dinklage; Cynthia Rowley mother-daughter duo Jill Clayburgh and Lily Rabe;the upcoming "Lights Out" father-son duo Stacy Keach and Pablo Schreiber; director Walter Bobbie; documentarian Michael Moore; "Nurse Jackie" Edie Falco (nursing a cold); Jason Sudeikis; Promises, Promises director-choreographer Rob Ashford (in Week Four of rehearsals, promising a hit ahead); Hugh Jackman; Atlantic Theatre's Neil Pepe and Mary McCann; Marcia Gay Harden and Hope Davis (both late of God of Carnage) with husbands in tow; Brooke Shields; Dana Ivey (mending nicely from her knee surgery); Sarah Paulson with Amanda Peet; playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman; David Hyde Pierce; Ben Walker (who'll be Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson when that rock opera starts previewing March 23 at The Public); Anthony Anderson; comedienne Caroline Rhea; comedienne-producer Jamie de Roy (marking her second Broadway production in two days); Harvey Keitel; Kate Baldwin and the first two women to win Tonys for Best Director (minutes apart, in point of fact, in 1997): Garry Hynes for McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane and Julie Taymor for The Lion King. Right on, Ms. Bigelow!