By Toby Zinman

For the Inquirer

"Come on, Harry, it's not every day they abolish hanging, is it?"  That day in 1965 ended capital punishment in Britain, and Martin McDonagh's new play Hangmen, starts two years earlier in a prison cell where a man is hanged before our eyes—just as people were hanged as public entertainment in the 19th century.

Hangmen, McDonagh says, was written out of "pacifist rage"; referencing famous cases of miscarriage of justice, the play gives us the basic issue: the death penalty is barbaric not only because it can execute the wrong person but because of the basic absurdity of demonstrating that murder is wrong by murdering the murderer.  Hanging is, the hangman Harry tells us, more "dignified" than the electric chair ("I'm from Lancashire, not Arkansas") and as for the guillotine, it's "messy and French."

McDonagh's return to the theatre with this first new play in ten years has been hailed by the London press with delirious praise, although, frankly, I didn't share the excitement. After the brilliant and shockingly hilarious plays that made his reputation as the master of mordant violence and onstage bloodletting, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Cripple of Inishmaan, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, and The Pillowman, this one seems formulaic: the set-up (a bunch of moronic guys with an idiotic plan), then the establishment of dread (one smart guy with sights set on an easy victim), then the plot twist that makes the joke on us, a twist that is a by now predictable McDonagh conclusion (Ha-ha, were you worried?).

Harry (David Morrissey), former hangman and now a pub owner, has a crew of alcoholic idiots to bolster his ego by reminiscing about the good old days when he was the Lord High Executioner (remember, I just saw The Mikado). Enter Mooney (the superb Johnny Flynn) who fastens his creepy attentions first on Harry's wife  (Sally Rogers) and then his plump, shy teenage daughter (Bronwyn James). Mooney sounds just like a Pinter character: "Even when I try to be funny, I come across more as menacing."

Under Matthew Dunster's quick-march direction and a cast of pitch-perfect actors using thick Northern accents, Hangmen is impressive but not the McDonagh thrill I had hoped for.