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First Nighter: Daniel Radcliffe Shines in Martin McDonagh's Cripple of Inishmaan

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(On June 27, 2013, I published a review here of The Cripple of Inishmaan, Martin McDonagh's thigh-slapping, heart-plucking play, in its Michael Grandage production at London's Noel Coward Theatre. The production is now transferred intact to New York City's Cort Theatre. Having seen it again, I can report that it's every bit as lively, as thoroughly hilarious and as consistently heart-tugging here as it was there, if not that much better for the cast members having enriched their performances while working at them longer. When I wrote my observations in a round-up of other London productions, I kept my remarks short. Here I reprint my original review with some additional comments.)

Daniel Radcliffe is out to prove something, and he's doing a bang-up job of it. Set for life as the #1 Harry Potter alumnus, he could undoubtedly make a career of movie romcoms. He absolutely refuses, and now after giving his all--and showing it, too--in Equus and singing and dancing on Broadway in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, he's taken on the physically punishing eponymous role in The Cripple of Inishmaan, Martin McDonagh's hilarious, heart-shattering 1997 dramedy.

Holding his left hand to his chest. favoring his skewed right leg and speaking in an Irish brogue (Radcliffe's father was from County Cork), he's Cripple Billy Craven, the orphaned boy--raised by two "aunties," Kate (Ingrid Craigie) and Eileen (Gillian Hanna)--who hears in 1934 that movie-maker Robert Flaherty has arrived on nearby Aran and is looking for local people for his Man of Aran cast.

Mocked all his life for his afflictions and convinced his parents drowned attempting to get away from him, Cripple Billy sets his sights on joining the production--as well as keeping his other sights on courting foul-mouthed temptress Helen McCormick (Sarah Greene), an impossible goal, as he sees it.

McDonagh's genius when he was writing plays like The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Lieutenant of Inishmore--he's come up with only one since he declared he'd had it with playwriting--was taking common perceptions of the Irish and playing them up to a fare-thee-well. So, the comedy amid the tragedy in his works--this one no less than the others and maybe more so--is fall-off-your-seat funny. Not only Aunties Kate and Eileen get yuks bantering, but regular guffaw-inducers in the country store where Kate and Eileen sell mostly canned peas include Helen's sweets-fixated brother Bartley (Conor MacNeill) and, most of all, Johnnypateenmike (Pat Shortt), who trades local news for goods.

Michael Grandage, who has yet to direct a less-than-superb mounting, keeps all his players at the top of their form, but it's Radcliffe, the instant movie superstar, who commands the stage as a lost boy who only wishes he could become a faraway Hollywood somebody. Perhaps Radcliffe's most commendable facet is that he eagerly embraces his status as an ensemble performer.

(That's my original review. Below is there was room to say then as well as additional comments.)

Of the Inishmaan denizens McDonagh shows us, there are three others. The most prominent is Babbybobby (Padraic Delaney), a local boat-owning tough guy whom Billy tricks into ferrying him to Aran for Flaherty's filming--which turns out to have been completed when Billy, Helen and Bartley arrive.

One of the other two is Johnnypateenmike's 90-year-old Mammy (June Watson), whom the devious son is trying to bump off to no avail by plying her with alcohol. The last Inishmaan inhabitant inrroduced is the good Doctor (Gary Lilburn), a graying physician who's got the unrewarding task of tending to the collection of Inishmaan oddballs. Be assured that Delaney, Watson and Lilburn all go at their juicy roles with the slick finishing touches typical of the overall playing.

Incidentally, McDonagh has no end of amusement outfitting his characters with quirks. There's Auntie Kate, who has a habit of talking to a stone she keeps handy. Helen, who works part time for the local egg delivery man, is given to smashing eggs over brother Bartley's head, whereas Bartley's sweetie obsession centers on a craving for delectables called Mintios, Yalla-mallows and Fripple-Frapples. Bartley also has a telescope fetish. And everyone around knows that in his plentiful spare time Billy harbors a penchant for gazing at cows.

One thing about McDonagh and his view of the Irish is that they're not the sentimental lot many of the traditional folk songs perpetuate. He enjoys giving the impression something soft and cozy is just about to occur and then upending the expectation in a line of dialogue or a raised hand. Watch out for it, and revel in it.

Everything here transpires on Christopher Oram's revolving set, the primary habitat being the not-too-busy goods shop Eileen and Kate run, where those cans of peas appear to make up most of the inventory. Paule Constable lights the environments for the somber mood in which these far-flung folks seem habitually mired.

Also be it known that this Cripple of Inishmaan is part of director Grandage's first five-play London season as head of The Michael Grandage Company. Tapping marquee names like Judi Dench, Simon Russell Beale and Jude Law to headline the offerings, he's had a huge success, although so far this is the only entry on that roster that's been shipped here. Perhaps we'll get to see more stateside from coming seasons. It's certainly devoutly to be wished.