Story: Carmichael has a problem. His left hand was severed nearly half a century ago when a group of “hillbillies” chased him near his home in Spokane, Washington, put his hand on a railroad trestle and watched as it was ripped off Carmichael’s arm. They then had the additional audacity to pick up his severed hand several hundred yards down the track and wave “good bye” with it to Carmichael.

They shouldn’t have done that. The 17-year-old Carmichael survived that ordeal and then set about on a lifelong quest to (a) seek vengeance against the quintet of attackers and (b) find his missing appendage. He’s long since taken care of the former goal, but has spent 47 years searching for the latter.

That mission has brought him to Lake County, Indiana in 1992. He’s been contacted by Marilyn and Toby, a pair of young lovers who professed to have located said hand. When they show up with a ‘hand’ at the seedy hotel where Carmichael is staying, he’s disappointed to see that the appendage isn’t his.

That’s unfortunate for Toby and Marilyn, because Carmichael decides to terrorize them for their foiled sleight-of-hand (sorry). When Toby reveals that Carmichael’s real hand is back at their house, the stranger handcuffs them to a radiator and lights a candle which is affixed to a can of gasoline. If Carmichael finds the hand at the address they give him, he’ll be back in time to snuff out the flame.

Toby and Marilyn are hysterical. Their fortunes seem to change when Mervyn, a daffy clerk at the hotel, discovers their predicament. Certainly, they reason with Mervyn, a call to the police is in order. Mervyn, however, is a different kind of quirky. He’s pre-occupied with getting people to listen to his travails, even if they’re a captive audience. Will common sense prevail?

Highlights: St. Louis Actors’ Studio welcomes the holiday season with something completely different, an arresting comedy by Anglo-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh. It’s far from his best work but does have its moments of delight and daffiness, abetted by the amusing work of director Wayne Salomon’s spirited cast.

Other Info: McDonagh’s portfolio includes several outstanding gems such as The Pillowman, The Lieutenant of Inishmore and The Cripple of Inishmaan. The latter two benefit from McDonagh’s ear for the rough, rowdy language of western Ireland, where he spent his summers as a lad. Combined with those colorful colloquial characters is McDonagh’s penchant for violence-laced comedy, which works against the odds.

Not so with A Behanding in Spokane, at least not to the same extent. This 2010 effort was McDonagh’s first attempt to set a play in The States for reasons not all that clear. He crafts a quartet of losers, more or less, aiming for a modern version of The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight with a wannabe Sam Shepard script.

That’s not to discount the performances culled by Salomon from his players. Jerry Vogel is assuredly menacing as the obsessed Carmichael, a character portrayed by Christopher Walken on Broadway in the play’s limited run there. Vogel’s Carmichael can be alternately charming and dangerously deviant, and since he carries a revolver he is clearly in charge.

His interplay with the other characters is both eerie and unsettling. When Marilyn questions why he cares about a hand that long since has lost its usefulness, Carmichael scarily and defiantly answers, “Because it’s mine.”

Leerin Campbell and Michael Lowe are amusing as the third-rate cons who are trying to up their game from weed-dealing to fraud. Their combined IQ barely hits triple digits, but Campbell and Lowe give them an oafish, exaggerated appeal (except to an audience member on the opening Saturday, who loudly and angrily shouted his disapproval as he left the theater. Campbell and Lowe remarkably resumed their performances with nary a glitch).

William Roth has a fine time as the giddily goofy Mervyn, an odd character even by McDonagh standards. Roth, dressed up like a Phillip Morris cigarette commercial back in the day, adroitly holds his body rigidly in place while Mervyn utters a cascade of gibberish and nonsense which serves primarily to annoy the other characters and exacerbate their tension.

Salomon takes advantage of Patrick Huber’s deliciously dumpy set design, which features a hotel room with drab, dirty walls, a pair of windows to a fire escape and two doors serving as an entrance and a closet. Huber’s lighting accentuates the seedy look and carryings-on, with Salomon adding sound design. Carla Landis Evans provides a delightful touch with the garish props as well as costumes which underscore the nether nature of the characters.

If you’re looking for a creepy, vulgar and darkly comic evening of theater, A Behanding in Spokane fits the bill. If not, don’t say you haven’t been warned.

Play: A Behanding in Spokane

Company: St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Venue: Gaslight Theater, 358 North Boyle

Dates: December 7, 8, 9, 10, 14, 15, 16, 17

Tickets: $30-$35; contact 1-800-982-2787 or ticketmaster.com

Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.

Photos courtesy of Patrick Huber

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