‘Hangmen’ reviews: ‘Whirlwind’ dark comedy from Martin McDonagh boasts killer performances

Two years after its premature pandemic closure, Martin McDonagh’s play “Hangmen” has slipped the proverbial noose and returned to Broadway in a plot twist you might think McDonagh wrote himself. The unexpected resurrection of this dark comedy about the cessation of the death penalty in England in 1965 stars a slightly different cast than it did back in March 2020: David Threlfall has stepped into the shoes of the hangman played by Mark Addy, while Alfie Allen takes over the menacing character Mooney that Dan Stevens once embodied.

These two characters come to loggerheads when they meet in the bar that Threlfall’s Harry runs in his early retirement, while a subsequent kidnapping plot propels both characters to make fateful decisions. Matthew Dunster directs the thriller, which also features original Broadway cast members Tracie Bennett, Gaby French, and many others. “Hangmen” opened at the Golden Theatre on April 21.

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McDonagh’s return to Broadway received mostly positive notices from critics. Jesse Green (New York Times), for one, calls the show a “rip-roaringly hilarious yet profoundly horrific” play and gives it the Critic’s Pick. He praises Threlfall’s “titanic performance” and Allen’s “convincingly reptilian performance,” as well as director Dunster’s “whirlwind production” that “extracts every possible laugh from each dour situation.” The double threat Anna Fleischle also earns a rave for her “sinister sets and pinpoint costumes.” Above all, Green feels like our world now better mirrors the “cynicism” of the play than it did Off-Broadway and even pre-pandemic, saying the drama “plays less like a clever exercise and more like news, with an unnerving headline.”

A little less enthused, Helen Shaw (Vulture) writes that McDonagh’s play “creaks and groans down in the thriller structure itself.” “The nasty-twisty plot works best in the first half, when its goads are sharpest,” she observes, continuing, “McDonagh needs speed and an unbalanced audience to keep his pressures high, but the last third of his play wobbles woozily, like a coaster that’s gone rolling off the bar.” For this unevenness, Shaw faults director Dunster, as well as a lack of “balance” between the “wonderful” Threlfall and Allen, who “can’t keep his side of the see-saw down.” Shaw does commend Fleischle’s “absolutely gorgeous” designs and Ian Dickinson’s “incredible” sound design.

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For the copious amounts of cheers for its return to the New York stage, “Hangmen” should perform quite handsomely at the upcoming Tony Awards. The play currently ranks second in our combined odds in Best Play, trailing only “The Lehman Trilogy.” McDonagh has certainly appealed to Tony nominators in the past with four prior Best Play nominations over nearly a quarter century, for “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” “The Lonesome West,” “The Pillowman,” and “The Lieutenant of Inishmore.” A fifth certainly seems in the offing. For navigating McDonagh’s dark humor and plot machinations, Dunster also looks likely to earn a nomination for Best Director for his Broadway debut; he trails only Sam Mendes for “The Lehman Trilogy” in our odds.

An acting showcase for its two central characters, “Hangmen” also looks fated to earn at least a duo of nominations for its performers. Best Actor contender David Threlfall wowed the critics, even those who weren’t enamored with the production, and for his transformative work he could land the second Tony nomination of his career; he has a previous nomination from 40 years ago for “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.” Threlfall currently ranks fourth in the race, trailing David Morse (“How I Learned to Drive”), Simon Russell Beale (“The Lehman Trilogy”), and Daniel Craig (“Macbeth”), with Adam Godley (“The Lehman Trilogy”) rounding out our projected nominees.

SEE ‘Hangmen’ could finally earn McDonagh a long awaited Tony Award for Best Play

For his Broadway debut, Alfie Allen looks like an even stronger contender in Featured Actor for playing the showier, charismatically sinister character Mooney. Allen currently ranks second in the race and has the greatest number of users predicting his nomination and victory. Chuck Cooper (“Trouble in Mind”) currently tops our odds, while Jesse Tyler Ferguson (“Take Me Out”), Austin Pendleton (“The Minutes”), and Darren Criss (“American Buffalo”) complete our top five.

If the nominators really fall for “Hangmen,” Featured Actress Tracie Bennett could eke out a nomination as well for playing Alice, the funny and sympathetic wife of Threlfall’s Harry. Bennett is a past nominee, of course, for her performance as Judy Garland in “End of the Rainbow,” and “Hangmen” marks her return to the stage after that feted turn; she just narrowly cracks our top ten in the category.

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In the design categories, it seems beyond a foregone conclusion that Fleischle will land a nomination for her stunning scenic design. The primary location of Harry’s bar is not only terrifically realized, but the scene transition between the play’s prologue and the first act is one that this writer still remembers with awe from way back on March 7, 2020, when I saw the production just days before theaters shut down. Sound designer Dickinson could also nab a nom, too, to accompany his three prior Tony bids.

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