If Glenn Beck didn’t exist, somebody would have to invent him. Somebody already has. It’s playwright Martin McDonagh, who brings us the character of JohnnyPateenMike, the town gossip in “The Cripple of Inishmaan."
JohnnyPateenMike, like Beck, considers himself a “journalist” as he delivers the “news” door to door on the small Irish island of Inishmaan. And when he doesn’t have any news, he makes it up.
As McDonagh’s play opens, JohnnyPateenMike (lavishly played by Dermot Crowley), arrives at the grocery owned by Eileen and Kate (a marvelously whimsical Dearbhla Molloy and Ingrid Craigie) to divulge his “big news.” It’s 1934 and JohnnyPateenMike is attired in his Important newsman’s outfit: jacket, vest, and bowler hat.
The big news (which is actually true) is that documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty, celebrated for his 1922 film “Nanook of the North,” has come to the neighboring island of Inishmore to shoot a film called “Man of Aran." What’s more, he is scouring the local islands for villagers to serve as extras in the film.
This brings out the village vamp, Slippy Helen (a delightfully vulgar Clare Dunne), to try to persuade the fisherman BabbyBobby (Liam Carney) to row her over to Inishmore. He agrees to do it for a kiss.
The news also appeals to Cripple Billy, an orphan who has been cared for by his kind-hearted “aunties,” Eileen and Kate, ever since his parents drowned when he was a boy. Disabled at birth, Cripple Billy (Tadhg Murphy), is a charmingly unsophisticated young man who has an unusable right arm and a leg that he drags along behind him as he limps across the stage.
Cripple Billy would also like a ride to Inishmore and so he plays on BabbyBobby’s sympathy by telling him that he, Cripple Billy, is dying. This news, overheard by JohnnyPateenMike, is included in his next news bulletin, with the additional speculation that Billy is dying of cancer, or TB, or a brain tumor. As always, JohnnyPateenMike fills in the blanks.
Surprisingly, Cripple Billy is carted off to Hollywood by the American filmmakers for a screen test. But he is left stranded when the producers decide they would rather cast “an actor who can play a cripple, rather than a cripple who can’t act.”
This simple, bittersweet play, like all of McDonagh’s works, has a humorous undercurrent that director Garry Hynes keeps the actors delivering in a timely fashion. JohnnyPateenMike and his seriously alcoholic mother (Nancy E. Carroll) provide the bulk of it, and their scenes together are loudly hilarious.
“The Cripple of Inishmaan" is a collaboration between the Druid Company of Ireland and the Atlantic Theater Company, and all the actors are members of the Irish company. Many of them are veterans of McDonagh’s other plays, “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” “The Lonesome West,” “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” “The Pillowman,” and “A Skull in Connemara,” most of which have won multiple awards in Britain and America. (In addition, his film, “In Bruges,” was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Screenplay in 2008.) All this wonderful outpouring of creativity comes from a playwright whose first play, “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” was first produced in 1996, when he was just 26 years old.
“The Cripple of Inishmaan" is enhanced by the folksy music of composer Colin Towns, which pipes through the various scene changes, and by the sets and costumes of Francis O’Connor and the lighting of Davy Cunningham.
The entire “Inishmaan" company is currently engaged in a five-month coast-to-coast tour of the United States and Ireland and are scheduled to finish up this June on the island of Inis Meain, the actual island that McDonaugh renamed Inishmaan for the play.
“The Cripple of Inishmaan" can be seen and enjoyed Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at l p.m. and 6:30 p.m. through May 1 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., in Culver City. Call (213) 628-2772 for tickets.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.