Martin McDonagh is famous for dark, bloody humor. The curtain opens in Lieutenant of Inishmore with a dead cat dripping blood and ends with bullet-riddled bodies. In between, he has mocked the romance of violence. His most mature work, Pillowman, is an unflinching, layered examination of emotional pain, art and betrayal. As outrageous as his characters may be, his craft as a playwright, and the skill of a good director, make the outsized characters three-dimensional and meaningful.
By contrast, A Behanding in Spokane, now playing at the Schoenfeld, his first set in the U.S., is a one-joke skit. As expected, there are body parts strewn across the stage, but the characters and situations are punch lines rather than engaging or enlightening moments. Those expecting vintage McDonagh will be disappointed.
Carmichael (Christopher Walken) is a zombie-like psychopath searching for the hand that was violently removed from him as a child. His 47-year quest to retrieve it leads him to a seedy hotel room, perfectly rendered by set designer Scott Pask. Two young, incredibly dimwitted scam artists (Anthony Mackie of The Hurt Locker and Zoe Kazan of It's Complicated) try to con this maniac into thinking they have it. That plan goes awry and the threats of retribution, which should create a sense of suspense, are predictable and repetitive. The sloppy direction by John Crowley relies on the reputations of McDonagh and Walken to produce unearned laughs.
The one amusing wild card is Sam Rockwell's solid performance as a hotel receptionist whose offbeat eccentricity fulfills the promise of what makes McDonagh's works unique.
Carmichael is angriest when recalling that the bullies who removed his hand waved goodbye with it. It's a dark, unexpected twist. The audience can see the rest of the play's gimmicks from a mile away.
Conversely, Sin, based on an Isaac Bashevis Singer short story, is set in a small town in late 19th-century Poland. This folk tale, included in Singer's short-story collection Gimpel the Fool, involves a Jewish villager tempted by the devil and his demons. In the aptly named Sin, at the Rose Nagelberg Theater at Baruch College, Satan (Grant James Varjas) is at war with God. The play is billed as a "mystical comedy," and marries occasional humorous moments to poignant ones.
Satan wants to prove that a person will choose evil over good if the opportunity presents itself. To revenge himself on God, he enlists two demons in his personal vendetta: the temptress Shifra (Sarah Grace Wilson) and the softhearted Dvoyre (Jessiee Dantino).
His battleground in Sin, adapted from The Unseen, is a couple, Nosn (Paul Collins) and Royze Temerl (Suzanne Toren), happily married for 40 years. Their affection is so genuine, it's cruel when the inevitable happens: The husband is led astray by his lust for Shifra, played with zest by Wilson. Her occasional foray into leather is an added bonus for the costume designer.
The play needs a little cutting, though the performances are sound, save for Varjas', who offers a rather weak Satan. Even Nosn's quirky business rival, Moyshe Mekheles (Pierre Epstein), rings true. Directed by Kent Paul in a two-tier format, Sin effectively captures Singer's world -- the quirkiness and pathos of ordinary life.
Lady Rizo, a sexy cabaret, correction caberlesque artist, aims for the jugular. She marries burlesque's naughtiness to cabaret's torch. She and her Assettes are renown for belting out interpretations of classic scorchers and pop tunes alike. Their dress code is slinky, the language is brazen and the performances have earned raves. It's not every Web site that welcomes its fans with: "Lady Rizo loves you. The Assettes wanna spank you!" This round, her big lashes and baudy bravado are bewitching audiences solo in Lady Rizo: Unescorted. Once the lights dim, Lady Rizo, a denizen of the night, will hold court on March 19 and April 23, 10 p.m. at Joe's Pub.