‘A Behanding’ in Scranton
Diva Productions at the Olde Brick Theatre takes a risk with a twisted dark comedy
Casey Thomas is greeting acting students as they come in the door of the Olde Brick Theatre in Scranton on Wednesday night for a preview of his latest production, but he stops short of shaking hands – they’re covered in spray paint from all the prop hands this play requires.
As if this wasn’t evidence enough, Thomas is quick to mention that “A Behanding in Spokane” isn’t a typical show by any means, particularly for the area. That’s why, even though he fell in love with it at first read, he was hesitant to ask the board of Diva Productions for approval.
“They let me have free reign to do whatever I wanted, which was really strange, so I picked the most outlandish, darkest show. It wasn’t that I went for darkest show, but I read a whole bunch of scripts. It stuck out to me, and they were brave enough to let me try it out,” Thomas began, sitting in the back of the theater as the four-member cast prepared to go on.
“I was going to do ‘Misery’ because of the Halloween season, and I always wanted to do the stage play. The rights were restricted, so I ended up having to scramble for another script and I had like a week, so everyone’s handing me stuff and handing me stuff and then I got this, which was so ridiculous and dark and funny and raunchy that I was like, ‘God, this would be so much fun.’ So I gave it to them to consider not thinking that they would let me do it and hoping, almost, that they wouldn’t, and she’s like, ‘Bob loved it.’ I was like, ‘Oh, shit.’”
He’s referring to Paige and Bob Balitski of Diva Productions, which recently took over the small space in the appropriately named Olde Brick.
“We talked about this in great detail, if we thought – or if anyone would think – that we were in any way being disrespectful or racist, and it was a real concern for us,” Paige said of the show’s strong language and content.
“We can afford to take these chances. A lot of theater companies can’t. When we weren’t (in that position), we had to do very PG stuff.”
“Behanding” would certainly be rated R for language alone, and its story doesn’t pull any right-handed punches either. Conor McGuigan plays Carmichael, a disturbed man who lost his left hand 27 years ago and has been searching the country for it ever since. Two naïve weed dealers, Toby (Terry Thompson) and Marilyn (Jessica McDonough), attempt to sell him a hand they know isn’t his while a nosy hotel clerk named Mervyn (Timothy McDermott) watches the crazy story unfold purely for the fun of it.
“Casting Carmichael was difficult. I had three nights of auditions, two callbacks, and I ended up going with Conor who never even came to auditions. I had him read downtown when we were out one night. I knew him and I knew what he could do,” Thomas explained, saying that he wasn’t even going to do the show without a proper Carmichael.
“Everyone else was fairly easy, but I had to kind of go out and search around a little bit for a Carmichael. But it was important to do that. It was paramount.”
Those who are familiar with Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s other work, plays like “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” and “The Pillowman” and films like “In Bruges” and “Seven Psychopaths,” can probably figure out why the psychotic part played by Christopher Walken on Broadway was such an important role, along with the tone this characters sets.
“It’s a really relevant play. It’s a ride. I don’t even want to give too much away about it because once you start, you can’t stop until you tell the whole story. Otherwise, it makes no sense. Just come and take it for what it is. Even last night when I was watching them do it, it’s a blur. It goes by so fast; the dialogue is so quick. It’s like a farce, in a way,” Thomas described.
“I was hoping the audience would leave thinking, ‘What the fuck did I just see?’ I was hoping it would have that momentum. They wouldn’t have enough time to focus on any one outlandish story point because everything moves so fast, so there’s no dwelling on things and thinking about how ridiculous it is.”
As for the liberal use of a certain N-word, Thomas feels it’s much harsher on the printed page than it is when spoken by the actors in this increasingly insane situation that plays out in a shady hotel room.
“I never saw it (as racist). When I read it, I’m like, ‘Wow, what a really great part for a black kid.’ That was my first thought because there aren’t many out there. And he’s actually the voice of reason, the most normal character out of the bunch,” he noted.
“Terry, who plays Toby (the show’s lone black character), doesn’t think twice about it. I think it’s all in your head. If you’re taking something too seriously, then you’re overthinking it. It’s a portrait of silliness. It’s not supposed to be serious. That’s why it was important to find the right person for every part because a lot of people came in and auditioned. If somebody doesn’t understand this and read it without that dark comedic element, then it’s just going to be vicious. Because it’s supposed to be funny – it’s not supposed to be vicious, and a lot of people were reading Carmichael like an actual menacing person, and it can’t be that way because it’s supposed to be light.”
Trusting the audience
While “Behanding” may not be everyone’s definition of “light,” Thomas has never been afraid of tackling darker material. The 29-year-old has been acting since the age of 10, returning to his hometown of Scranton in 2010 after spending six years in Los Angeles. Offered a part in “The Drowsy Chaperone” by his friend and first stage kiss soon after, he hasn’t stopped performing on local stages since, starring in at least 40 productions in the last few years before his full-length directorial debut, “Doubt,” at the Providence Playhouse in Scranton – a show with controversy all its own for addressing the molestation of children by Catholic priests.
“There’s just as much controversy over that show as there is over this. They have an older fan base at the Actors Circle; they come from church to see the shows. With the undertones of ‘Doubt,’ people were raising their eyebrows. They were really worried about it. I said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ No one trusts audiences; they just immediately think they’re going to get up and walk out,” he said.
“They didn’t. They loved it. I got more hesitation from that show than this. They’re just like, ‘Go ahead. Do it. Whatever.’ I’m like, ‘You know say ‘motherfucker’ like 100 times, and they say the N-word like 50 times’ ‘Whatever. Do it.’”
He insists, however, that he’s not seeking out controversy – just something different.
“Everyone’s sick of doing the same old stuff, so any time someone hears of something, especially by this playwright, which a lot of people know, there’s a lot of excitement from the actors and the community. But as far as the audiences go, we’re not sure. So far, everyone understands what it is and they go along for the ride, but there’s still those people that come here not knowing what they’re seeing; they’re just loyal customers to the Olde Brick, so they just come to every show,” he pointed out.
“There’s no real story to it. It’s just a scenario that you watch. It’s just two people in a hotel room with this one guy and a clerk and it’s something that happens. It was just so much fun to think about it that way. It reminded me a lot of Quentin Tarantino, with interesting character dynamics. The things they say don’t make sense, but they’re funny.”
The cast, he believes, understood this right away, making the only four weeks of rehearsal breeze by.
“We’ve just been having fun. At this point, we’re just ready for an audience to come in because the more you do it, it get stale; people get complacent and all that. It’s been a frenzy. The last show I directed was much smoother. This one’s been a little bit of a clusterfuck, but this is my first time doing something here with them, so I had that learning curve,” he acknowledged.
“Everything ended up working out perfectly. They’re going to end up making me look good. I’ve fallen short on some things. I directed the shit out of the show, but there wasn’t a lot of time for the set, but luckily in the end, with the performances in the show, they did such a good job.”
Kids and adult humor
Despite his confidence in them, Thomas admits he’s nervous as the small audience gets settled, so he steps outside to smoke a cigarette.
Just like he described, the show, which has no intermission, plays out quickly and descends into madness and absurdity like “an adult cartoon,” as one audience member described it, completely engrossing the crowd for 90 minutes.
“It was awesome. I can’t wait to bring people to see this,” one person told the cast and crew afterwards.
“None of these characters are likeable, but you made them so likeable!” another enthused.
“No other theater would do this, and this is an excellent show,” yet another said.
That’s exactly what Paige Balitski and a very relived Thomas are counting on – attracting a younger audience by taking risks with plays that aren’t afraid to defy the expectations of local theatergoers.
“The young are going to take over the theater and we need to give them a place to play,” Balitski admitted, “so when it’s time for the old guard to walk away, you’ve got a stable of actors and you have built an audience. So that’s our goal.”
by Rich Howells
Rich is an award-winning journalist, longtime blogger, practicing poet, adequate photographer, and podcast co-host. He is the founder and editor of NEPA Scene.