As with his current, acclaimed film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, screenwriter-playwright Martin McDonagh specializes in unsentimental looks at culpability that are filled with horror, dark humor, and ambiguity. McDonagh (also known for plays like The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Pillowman and screenplays like In Bruges) keeps that focus with Hangmen, an engrossingly twisty look at the hangman mentality and what it might lead to when rules and logic are categorically defied.
The Atlantic Theater Company production, directed by Matthew Dunster, starts in northern England in the 1960s, with a harrowing hanging of a man proclaiming his innocence, done on Anna Fleischle’s stark and spare interrogation room set. But that set ingeniously moves and haunts and converges into the pub owned by the previous scene’s blood thirsty hangman, Harry (Mark Addy), who presides over his place with his wife Alice (Sally Rogers), giving a bumbling interview about the end of hanging in the U.K.
Also tapping a pint among his group of gabby cronies are familiar types, like the one who explains every joke and the one who still doesn’t get them (though he might know more than you think), but McDonagh’s banter keeps things fascinating, along with the sense that everyone here is deeply flawed and/or confused.
A possible lodger (Johnny Flynn) is also hanging around there, exuding an admitted mix of humor and menace, and he takes an interest in the pub owners’ 15-year-old daughter, Shirley (Gaby French), who’s apparently moody on the inside and shy and mopey on the outside.
In Act Two, Fleischle’s set takes another dazzling turn with an upper box representing a window table at a café. But as with Three Billboards, no one is quite what they seem, and it’s best not to know too much in advance about what happens. Just submit to this well done journey into amoral anarchy.
Hangmen is playing at the Atlantic Theater Company through March 7.