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'Inishmore': Savagery and satire in one shot

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NEW YORK -- Every monster has a soft spot. Hitler loved his mom, Stalin was supposedly fond of Shirley Temple, and Padraic, the twisted protagonist of Martin McDonagh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore (**** out of four), is wild about Wee Thomas.

"Mad Padraic," as he is not-quite-affectionately called, hasn't yet earned international renown as a genocidal tyrant. But on the island of Inishmore, off the coast of Ireland, the young terrorist's sadism is already the stuff of legend. "Isn't it him the IRA wouldn't let in because he was too mad?" one character recalls. (Inishmore was written and is set in the early '90s, when that organization inspired even more fear.)

Where Thomas is concerned, though, Padraic is a pussycat. Which is only fitting, because Thomas is a pussycat as well -- I mean a real one, with paws and fur and, possibly, nine lives.

I can't elaborate too much without revealing a late, delicious plot twist. And it would be criminal to dampen any of the surprise in this play from McDonagh's Aran Islands trilogy, the smartest, funniest new work to land on Broadway since ... well, since McDonagh's last offering, 2005's The Pillowman.

Though not as deeply or intricately disturbing as Pillowman, Inishmore is a lot gorier. Cat lovers and the generally squeamish should be advised that feline blood -- fake, of course -- is spilled, though not in nearly as great abundance as fake human blood.

But however extreme the violence and collateral damage in this very, very dark comedy, there's nothing gratuitous about it. The action in Inishmore is, like the dialogue, stunningly taut and efficient. At a time when irony is being given a bad name, in theater and elsewhere, by writers who aren't nearly as clever as they think they are, McDonagh's fierce, unpretentious wit is a treasure.

Better still, there's a message in his madness. The deadpan and slapstick brutality in Inishmore reinforces the hopelessness and banality of its lost, raging characters, played by actors whom Wilson Milam directs to brisk perfection.

In addition to David Wilmot, who is horrifying and hilarious as Padraic, they include Alison Pill as a bloodthirsty tomboy with a romantic streak, and Jeff Binder, Andrew Connolly, Dashiell Eaves and Brian d'Arcy James as other hooligans who, foolishly, defy Padraic.

Peter Gerety and Domhnall Gleason are especially entertaining as Padraic's hapless dad (who is charged with caring for Thomas while the cat's adoring master is out torturing and mutilating less fortunate mammals) and an even more dimwitted local boy.

I never imagined that something as ferocious and fresh as Inishmore, first performed abroad at the Royal Shakespeare Company, would pass muster with risk-averse Broadway producers. But then I had suffered similar doubts about Pillowman.

While McDonagh has expressed a desire to focus more on film, stage fans should hope he has a few more surprises in store for us as well.

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© Copyright 2006 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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