Before I saw PURE Theatre’s production of A Behanding in Spokane, my experience with missing hands was confined to Arrested Development‘s Buster Bluth, whose hand, fans will remember, is bitten off by a seal with a taste for mammal blood. And though the play is much darker than the whole Buster-gets-a-hook episode — and there are far fewer hand jokes — the two share that grounding in the absurd that can turn a grisly tale of lost appendages into something incredibly funny, if unsettling.
A Behanding in Spokane, by award-winning playwright Martin McDonagh, rests on a man named Carmichael, whose 27-year search for the hand that was taken from him has led him to a crummy hotel room and a young weed-dealing couple who say they can bring him his hand for $500. When it turns out to be the wrong hand, Carmichael handcuffs the two to his radiator and goes off to search their house. An improvised gasoline bomb, a slightly off hotel clerk with a former addiction to speed, and a mother who may or may not have died while on the phone keep things moving while the would-be scammers try to argue, coerce, and beg their way out of their coming annihilation.
The outstanding cast of this production handles the thin line between frightening (a psychopath might explode an entire hotel to get back at two kinda dumb kids) and ridiculous (that psychopath gets distracted and insecure over a phone call with his mom) with great tact and talent. Sullivan Graci Hamilton and Michael Smallwood (a City Paper contributor) as the shady hand-selling couple are hilarious in their ineptitude to deal with what they’ve gotten themselves into. The two have a strong chemistry together, which is even more important since their characters spend most of the play fighting with each other. Somehow, the intimacy that outright fury requires can be harder to act than that which emerges from being loving and affectionate.
R.W. Smith as the goofy, formerly speed-addicted clerk steals the show with a bizarre monologue halfway through the action, and continues to shine as he goes back and forth between thwarting and assisting the handcuffed prisoners in their attempts to escape a fiery death. Rodney Lee Rogers shows off his acting chops as Carmichael, who is simultaneously terrifying, pathetic, vulnerable, and — dare I say — sympathetic. Rogers is fully committed to his character, shouting at the top of his lungs when it suits him and showing total comfort with the pistol he liberally points and waves around. But it is when the story draws to a close, and ambiguity begins to smudge out the clear-cut facts we’ve all been told, that Rogers and Smith, in particular, are at their very best.
It’s true that this raw story may not be for everyone, what with the countless times a certain four-letter-word is thrown around, and the severed hands, and such. However, if you can silence whatever qualms you may have, go see the show. It’s smart, funny, and moving. Just know that you’ll probably never look at a suitcase the same way again.