An amputee traps two con artists in the almost- excellent A Behanding in Spokane

Hand Job 

An amputee traps two con artists in the almost- excellent A Behanding in Spokane

If you're looking for a quick and easy visual example of dark humor, how's this: An American Tourister suitcase full of chopped-off hands. That's what an itinerant fellow named Carmichael is lugging in A Behanding in Spokane by Martin McDonagh, now at the None Too Fragile Theater.

The luggage and its contents serve as a handy summary of what is right, and simultaneously so frustrating, about both the play and this production. There is a bracing directness and honesty to the proceedings, yet it often feels like everyone is trying a bit too hard to be off the wall.

Still the four performers, under the well-paced direction of Sean Derry, are so close to nailing their respective characters that one wishes for an unseen hand to guide them across the finish line. The task before them is daunting since the playwright, who has authored some amazingly deep and cringe-inducing plays (The Pillowman, The Lieutenant of Inishmore), here opts to offer a one-joke skit padded out to 90 minutes. Given that, it is remarkable that the NTF players come as close as they do to pulling it off.

Carmichael is a haunted man who was relieved of his left hand decades before in a confrontation with a gang of bullies who held his wrist on a railroad track as a choo-choo passed. The toughs then ran off with the severed appendage, waving it at their young victim as they did.

So Carmichael has been searching for his missing meathook ever since, placing ads offering a $500 reward. But he's always disappointed by pretenders who show up with masquerading mitts that have been detached from other owners. Thus, the contents of his blood-spattered Samsonite.

In this instance, Carmichael has been hit on by two barely functional young con artists and lovers, African-American Toby and white chick Marilyn. They tried to pass off the hand of an aboriginal man they copped from a museum (claiming the digits turned dark from age), but Carmichael saw through their scam and now has them trapped in his scuzzy hotel room.

The room is visited by the reception desk jockey, Mervyn, a psycho-nerd type given to intrusive interruptions and obscure flights of imagination.

Interplay among these four questionable types features much of McDonagh's clever, off-handed humor and some attention-getting stage business. This includes a volley of airborne hands and a gas can attached to a lit candle.

The most fully-drawn character is Carmichael, since we get some backstory about him and his mother, with whom he converses on the phone. In this juicy role, Michael Regnier hits many of the right notes embodied in this obsessed and casually bigoted bundle of rage.

But Regnier stops just shy of becoming truly terrifying, a dimension that would give this fairly thin material some added heft. Absent that finely-honed edge of psychotic madness, Carmichael's more mundane moments are less funny in contrast.

As Mervyn, Nick Yurick settles into a comfortable sing-song delivery that feels spot-on for this bright yet addled hotel drone. Trouble is, Yurick never leaves that comfy pocket to explore where the character might go, especially in a long and contextually questionable diatribe about monkeys.

Kelly Strand absolutely nails the goofy innocence of would-be con artist Marilyn. But when she pushes the happy-face energy too hard, the character disappears and reveals an actor who's trying too hard.

In the role of Toby, Brian Kenneth Armour shows flashes of believable vulnerability as the terrified black man facing hateful racial baiting spewed by Carmichael.

Near the end, all the characters are a bit lost and meandering, and the play ends with a whimper. This is because the playwright seems not quite sure how to resolve his self-consciously outrageous send-up of violence, prejudice and the lure of a quick score.

A Behanding in Spokane Through March 9 at the None Too Fragile Theater, 1841 Merriman Road, Akron, 330-671-4563.

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