By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Before the curtain even rises on A Behanding in Spokane it’s clear that something’s off. The curtain itself is unsettling, made from stained, coarse material and hanging off an imposing metal rod. As you settle in your seat at Broadway’s Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, you have to wonder what’s behind the shroud.
That’s the point, of course. A Behanding in Spokane is a Martin McDonagh play—about a one-handed man trying to recover his missing appendage from a pair of dimwitted dope dealers—and it writhes with his trademarks: absurd violence, poetically foul language, and the constant, palpable sense that something awful is going to happen.
Set and costume designer Scott Pask hopes the audience will feel that dread right away. “Walking into the room, I wanted atmosphere,” he says. “I wanted there to be this anticipation about what is back there. There’s this distressed curtain hanging there, and it’s ominous.”
There was nothing in McDonagh’s script about a curtain, however, and other than the obvious fact that the play is set in a hotel, there were few stage directions to guide the designs. Pask had to study the play and decide what kind of room would suit it best.
He settled on a grotesquely decrepit chamber, where the one-handed man (Christopher Walken) meets the drug dealers and tangles with an eccentric receptionist (Sam Rockwell). The ceiling in puckered with leaks. The wallpaper is faded and peeling. You can practically smell the mold in the carpet.
Some of these choices directly impact the storytelling. The opening scene has a startling moment in a hotel closet, and Pask put the closet on a side wall. “It could have been on the upstage wall, and we could’ve seen what was happening in there, but it’s about that anticipation, that sense of wondering what’s going on,” he says.
The play is more than pure dread, however. It’s laced with McDonagh’s twisted humor and surreal logic---who goes shopping for hands?---and Pask reflects those qualities, too.
For instance, the set is at a slightly off-kilter angle, and it has a jagged perimeter. It’s like a giant hand ripped the room out of a hotel and crammed it onto a Broadway stage. But at the same, we see the “real world” outside the room’s window, not just the wings of the theatre. It’s a bizarre, amusing paradox.
Pask’s costumes have a similar spirit. Rockwell’s character is mildly obsessed with primates, and his uniform recalls the vest on an organ grinder’s monkey. Walken plays a scary man with some unexpected tenderness, so even though his trench coat is squid-ink black, it’s made from soft material.
It’s okay, of course, if audiences don’t consciously notice these details. “I’m trying to base things in reality, not impress a highly conceptual approach on the piece,” Pask notes. “It’s just that little nudge.”
He adds that his design is especially menacing because the script itself ends with an act of kindness. “Comedy is funnier if the room isn’t funny, and the sweetness is in contrast to the room,” he explains. “There’s this optimism about people in the script, and it says something if people are capable of making decent choices, even in a dark, awful place.”
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor