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.
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