NEW YORK — Kindness and cruelty pop up in the most unlikely places in Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan.
A master storyteller with both a pitch-black sense of humor and a probing heart, McDonagh has reminded us in his plays where the impulse to spin tales comes from: the need to acknowledge our potential, for both virtue and baseness, while grappling with reality.
In Inishmaan, first produced in London nearly 18 years ago, we meet people for whom telling stories is an especially essential function, given the predictability and drudgery of their lives in the titular small town off the coast of Ireland. When an American film crew arrives on the neighboring island of Inishmore, planning to document the locals, a few find fresh inspiration — among them “Cripple Billy” Claven, an orphaned teenager sheltered by two spinsters, who alternately coddle and belittle him, and shunned or ridiculed by pretty much everyone else.
The marvelous new production (* * * * out of four stars) that marks Inishmaan’s Broadway premiere, which opened Sunday at the Cort Theatre, is also based across the pond, where last year it was part of a West End series presented by director Michael Grandage. Grandage has retained his original, mostly Irish ensemble cast, including Daniel Radcliffe, who as Billy delivers his most fully realized and powerful performance on the Main Stem to date.
The marquee star, an Englishman whose father hails from Northern Ireland, nails the accent and makes Billy’s physical disability — which requires him to stagger around with considerable effort, using what others mockingly describe as a “shuffle” — painfully authentic. But the performance is most notable for its lack of affectation, for how Radcliffe captures Billy’s struggle to be accepted for his goodness and intelligence without flaunting those qualities in ways that would contradict them.
Interacting with his “aunties” and the more colorful townsfolk — the preening old gossip Johnnypateenmike, the pretty but wildly pugnacious Helen McCormick — Radcliffe’s Billy conveys the patience and discretion of a precocious child who has learned to respect the limits of others. And as Billy’s fortunes fluctuate, sometimes fantastically — Hollywood does come calling, or so it seems, just as questions are raised about how poor his health truly is — we recognize in McDonagh’s hero magnified reflections of both human frailty and our capacity to dream.
Guided by Grandage with great faith, feeling and wit, Radcliffe and his superb co-stars also fully serve the trenchant comedy in Inishmaan. Whether observing as Sarah Greene’s profanity-spewing Helen tortures Billy or watching Pat Shortt’s delightfully ludicrous Johnnypateenmike have at his geriatric, booze-swilling Mammy (a sublime June Watson), you’ll laugh in spite of yourself, and them.
Before Inishmaan ends, you’ll also be surprised, and moved, by these characters, whose arrival on Broadway proves well worth the prolonged wait.