Review | Plenty of gallows humor in ‘Hangmen’

[0006]_Cast of HANGMEN, Photo by Joan Marcus, 2022
Photo: Joan Marcus

Familiar phrases like “gallows humor,” “swinging sixties,” and “neck and neck” take on a disturbingly literal meaning when applied to “Hangmen,” Martin McDonaugh’s old-fashioned and highly entertaining new black comedy.

New stage works by the British-Irish McDonagh (“The Beauty Queen of Leenane, “The Pillowman, “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” “The Cripple of Inishmaan”) have unfortunately become a rarity since he became a major Hollywood director and screenwriter (“In Bruges,” “Seven Psychopaths” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”).

Inspired by a (potentially wrongful) execution that occurred shortly before England’s abolition of capital punishment in 1965, “Hangmen” follows Harry Wade (David Threlfall, who starred in the British version of the TV series “Shameless”), the country’s second-best professional hangman, who strokes his oversized ego at his pub in northern England, in front of his working-class patrons, disillusioned wife Alice (Tracie Bennett) and sensitive teenage daughter Shirley (Gaby French).

Then in walks Mooney (Alfie Allen, best known as Theon Greyjoy on “Game of Thrones”), a self-described “menacing” young Londoner who might have framed a man that Harry hanged two years earlier on murder charges. He also might have kidnapped Shirley. Mooney has also got Harry’s bungling former assistant Syd (Andy Nyman) involved in his elaborate scheme, which (at the very least) is intended to bring Harry down to size.

“Hangmen” is a meticulously-plotted work containing eccentric characters and built upon elements of pub drama, physical farce, whodunit mystery, action thriller and legal drama – not to mention a noose and countless pints of cask ale.

That being said, “Hangmen,” which premiered in London in 2015, really should have transferred to Broadway four years ago, immediately after its sold-out Off-Broadway debut in 2018. Instead, the producers waited two years, until March 2020, and the show had to close in previews due to the pandemic shutdown. 

Now, following another two-year wait, “Hangmen” is finally opening on Broadway – but without Johnny Flynn, who gave an electrifying, star-making performance as Mooney in the London and Off-Broadway productions. (In 2020, Mooney was played by Dan Stevens of “Downton Abbey.”) 

Notwithstanding, Allen and the rest of the current cast are great (though Threlfall appeared to be experiencing some vocal difficulties at my performance) and the lively production (directed by Matthew Dunster, with a rich scenic design) finds an ideal balance between roaring entertainment and grim uneasiness.

John Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St., hangmenbroadway.com. Through June 18.

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