Right now, there is a plethora of big-name Broadway shows in a jostling line-up to open by April 29, the Tony Awards eligibility cut-off date—culminating with Macbeth’s official opening that afternoon.
Away from this relentless big-name cavalry charge, just a few streets away, Islander, New York’s loveliest new musical, is opening tonight. Because of when it is opening, up against all these giants, this shimmeringly impressive musical, conceived and directed by Amy Draper, may be overlooked. It should absolutely should not be.
It has no celebrities (although its two leads Kirsty Findlay and Bethany Tennick should/will be stars). It is so good it deserves to open on Broadway, if its simplicity and ingenuity can be preserved—maybe at Circle in the Square, a pal suggested. It’s a jewel, so take a trip to Playhouse 46 at St. Lukes—just down the street towards 8th Avenue from Joe Allen on 46th Street—for a 90-minute, sublime performance (playing to July 31).
With a book by Stewart Melton and music and lyrics by Finn Anderson, the show is about an island in peril and two people at a crossroads in their own lives. Eilidh, pronounced Ay-lee (Tennick) is 15, and the youngest inhabitant of Kinnan, a small island somewhere off the coast of the Scottish mainland (the “bigland”). Into her life one day comes Arran, who is 16, and… well this critic does not want to say really.
The big twist is a surprise in the musical, and should be a surprise to watch. It may even sound absurd until it becomes absolutely normal a blink of an eye later. It is connected to a whale that Eilidh finds on the shore, and a nervous but tender friendship between the two young women, and the play comes with a glossary of words should you be scratching your head. This is very kind of the production team, but unnecessary as the two actors make what they are saying and what they are talking about in their lilting dialects absolutely clear. Islander is played with the best kind of heart and earnestness—exacting, not cloying or didactic.
It should be made clear that in this basement space there is barely anything on the floor the women perform on. They have a looping station, which helps them produce repetitive sounds (of waves and wind), and there is a small trunk, and some microphones.
With the aid of Simon Wilkinson’s lighting and Sam Kusnetz and Kevin Sweetser’s sound design, we are all seamlessly transported to the island, to raging seas, to a town hall meeting, to a party, to confessions in deserted schools, and emotional heart-to-hearts on wind-lashed beaches—and then a nailbiting boat ride with a woman about to give birth. The preservation of nature and community is the underlying theme of Islander, but laced with very personal truth into the personalities and stories of Eilidh and Arran.
Findlay and Tannick circle the space around each other, playing a host of other characters, including a man always complaining at council meetings, and Eilidh’s estranged mom and her fabulous grandma, who has an unnerving talent for playing dead very convincingly. Islander is really gorgeous—sharp, moving, funny, and one of the best musicals in New York right now that no one (yet) knows about.
It seemed a bit of a mystery when Martin McDonagh’s play Hangmen played off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theater Company in 2018 before its inevitable Broadway engagement; it was coming, garlanded with rave reviews, from London. And here it is four years later (Golden Theatre, until June 18), a heady mixture of brutality and dark humor that McDonagh writes so well, and which is the hallmark of this play.
Directed, as it was off-Broadway, by Matthew Dunster, the play first takes the audience to Britain in 1963, and to a dank jail cell where a prisoner called James Hennessy (Josh Goulding) is pleading for his life as the hangman’s noose swings in preparation.
The hangman is Harry Wade (David Threlfall), a large and bluff Northerner, whom Hennessy immediately mocks: They could have at least sent Pierrepoint, he says, referring to Albert Pierrepoint, Britain’s most pre-eminent executioner (who turns up later, played by John Hodgkinson).
(l to r) Alfie Allen (Mooney), Gaby French (Shirley) in “Hangmen.”
Harry is in Pierrepoint’s shadow, and later—at the worst possible moment—Pierrepoint appears to take issue with Albert talking up his own executioner skills in a newspaper article. Both men are competitive about the numbers of people they have killed, and their own professionalism. The weirdness of what they are competing over—bodies, lives—is darkly, deliciously written and played.
Two years after the execution, with capital punishment now abolished, we are in the Oldham, Lancashire pub Albert is landlord of alongside wife Alice (Tracie Bennett). Anna Fleischle’s evocative set is such a replication of an old-school English pub you can feel the fug of cigarettes and the smell of spilled bitter. It has a Greek chorus of regulars, including a police inspector (Jeremy Crutchley)
He and Alice struggle to understand their daughter Shirley (Gaby French, returning from the Atlantic production). Shirley’s inner turmoil is dismissed as “mooning,” and their parental ignorance dovetails, potentially tragically, with the appearance of the menacing Mooney (Alfie Allen), whose name mirrors the “mooning” Shirley’s parents struggle to identify. Shirley is insulted and denigrated by her parents, who do not realize what they are doing.
Mooney is a hint of the swinging ’60s in this claustrophobic pub. He has a sneering malevolence, a peacock’s strut, and a constant stream of insinuating, ever-so-slightly menacing chit-chat. Mooney is terrifying and funny. Who is he? What is he? Where has he come from? He reminds this critic of Sloane in Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr. Sloane: an easy smile, a leering thorn in the side of authority and conventional decency, and possibly concealing a weapon.
Like Orton, McDonagh plays on words, subverts meanings, and knows how repetition and wordplay can work in glorious absurdity, as when these bluff men’s men—or so they would like us to think—find themselves saying “cock” over and over again. Also notable are Syd (Andy Nyman), Harry’s assistant, whose obsequiousness is a cover for deception and a sharper tack than Harry knew.
But Mooney is the play’s unknowable devil, and McDonagh and Allen intend to keep it that way. We see legalized violence and illegal violence taking the same form; personal and institutionalized arrogance can both lead to the extinguishing of life; one just carries the veneer of propriety. What if some of the people the men hung were innocent? The play deliberately does not answer this; it just faces the terrible black hole of possibility.
In a play so focused on men, its significant flaw is that it does not know what to do with its female characters, and the offhand way the women are treated is as off-putting as it is bizarre. Alice is little more than an archetypal Northern landlady, with big hair, an outward brassiness, and a scarred heart of gold. Shirley is a little more calibrated; she is not simply the doe-eyed ingénue, but has an intelligence and guile we see only flashes of. Schematically, the play ensures her absence and Alice’s comparative silence.
It is Threlfall, with his sudden switches from warmth to vicious bluster, and Mooney, whose wit comes slicked with acid, and whose flashes of volcanic temper are frightening, that dominate the pub. The play leaves us wondering about the violence of both the law and the lawless. In Hangmen, extremely funny as it is, you are left with death—of people, and of justice.
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