By Elizabeth Ahlfors
It’s dark humor over kind hearts, humorous and heartbreaking but The Cripple of Inishmaan, directed by Michael Grandage (Red) at the Cort Theater with Daniel Radcliffe, and a keen ensemble, deliver it all with bittersweet humanity. The play by Martin McDonagh (The Beauty Queen of Leenane) sets his lively cast of characters on the stony island of Inishmaan off the west coast of Ireland in 1934. The focus, however, is on Billy Claven, an ailing 17-year-old, twisted and crippled since birth, who grabs for a way to change his life and risks the consequences.
Billy is played by Daniel Radcliff (Equus, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying). He lives in a community of storytellers. An orphan, he has been raised by two whimsical “aunties” who run a small country shop, Eileen Osbourne (Gillian Hanna) with a weakness for sweeties and Kate (Ingrid Craigie), who calms herself talking to a stone. With crackerjack timing, both sisters are devoted to Billy but feel he is a hopeless lad who will never amount to much. Billy, however, is a clever, lonely lad with fear of the sea, reads books, thinks about life and prefers cows to people.
Fortunately, luck comes his way. Johnnypateenmike (Pat Shortt), a know-it-all who barters gossip for food, tells the sisters that a Hollywood director is coming to the neighboring island of Inishmore to cast a film. He needs some locals to bring to California for a screen test. (Actually, this is based on the actual story of director Robert Flaherty who traveled to the Aran islands around that time to film a documentary.) As Johnnypateen says, “The Man of Aran they’re going calling the film, and Ireland mustn’t be such a bad place so if the Yanks want to come to Ireland to do their filming.”
Billy is determined to get to Inishmore and be chosen for the film. America offers new adventures and interesting people. He can escape Inishmaan where everyone calls him “crippled Billy,” a name that hurts him. (Political correctness is not the norm in Inishmaan). He can leave its quirky inhabitants like Johnnypateen with his boozing fierce ancient mam (June Watson), the McCormick teenagers, Bartley (Conor McNeill) and his 17-year-old sister called Slippy Helen (Sarah Greene), with a temper as fiery as her red hair. Helen is a Jezebeland Billie longs for her.
Billy finds Babbybobby (Padraic Delaney), a taciturn boat-owner and asks for a boat ride to Inishmore so he can try to get in the film, but Babbybobby refuses, saying it’s bad luck. “Poteen-Larry took a cripple fella in his boat and it sank.” Billy finally convinces Babbybobby by showing him a letter, apparently from the local doctor, stating that the crippled boy has TB and three months left to live.
McDonagh knows how to spin a tale with reversals and cohesion. He lights the darkness with the sharp, often casually cruel wit of the people of Inishmaan, who joke about dead geese and cats and just as slickly, throw barbs at the disabled boy. Radcliffe inhabits the bittersweet life of crippled Billy, who can nail some sharp retorts of his own and has proven a conniving instinct. While your heart goes out to Billy with his distorted body, struggling to move about and folding up in depression, Radcliff is always part of the ensemble, each of whom delivers a smart portrayal of a multifaceted character, from the sympathetic doctor (Gary Lilburn) to the fussy garrulous aunties.
Director Grandage steers a steady course between anguish and joy in this gray world of Inishmaan. Melancholy lighting by Paule Constable and Christopher Oram’s canny revolving set of wood and stones, efficiently reveal the drab store, rocky seashore, and a dismal Hollywood hotel room. Composer and sound designer Alex Baranowski adds forlorn folk tunes to the sunless atmosphere.
Daniel Radcliff proves a fine Billy Claven, leading a ensemble of five-star eccentrics who constantly up-end the usual, after which Inishmaan continues on in its unique way.
The Cripple of Inishmaan opened April 20, 2014. Ends July 20, 2014. Cort Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St. New York, NY. Two hours, 25 minutes with intermission.