A psychopath who is missing his left hand terrorizes two grifters in a seedy hotel room. The two hapless stooges had tried to scam the man with teasing information about the hand's whereabouts, and now he's going to make them pay.

Aw, don't you just love this warm, fuzzy time of year?

"A Behanding in Spokane" continues a tradition that Gremlin Theatre stumbled into several years ago with its December production slot.

The streak started in 2008 with Sam Shepard's "Fool for Love." David Mann then staged his Godfather/Shakespeare riff "Corleone." In 2010, Gremlin producer Peter Hansen himself starred with incendiary zeal in "Burn This," and last year he and Anna Sundberg went toe-to-toe in "After Miss Julie."

"It started by accident, I guess," said Hansen. "It's nice to offer people something completely different."

"Behanding" is the first play set in America by Irish writer Martin McDonagh, who first lit up the theatrical world with "Beauty Queen of Leenane." In the late 1990s, McDonagh had four plays running simultaneously in London, got drunk during an awards ceremony, famously swore at Sean Connery and told interviewers that he found most theater BOR-ing. Recently, he has focused on movies, writing and directing 2008's "In Bruges" (an Oscar nominee for best screenplay) and the recent "Seven Psychopaths."

The abiding constant in McDonagh's work for theater and film is a fearless fascination with humanity's ugliness -- something that elicits shock, revulsion and laughs. His is the darkest humor, and if someone called his work offensive, he likely would flash a smile of gratitude.

Perfect for Gremlin

Director Matt Sciple brought "Behanding" to Hansen's attention last year. Sciple had directed McDonagh's "Pillowman" for Jon Hassler Theater, and picked up a copy of the new play when he heard about it in New York.

"It was horrifying and funny," Sciple said. "This is much lighter than 'Pillowman,' and more fun."

In Sciple's production, David Tufford will play Carmichael, who checks into a hotel room because he has been led to believe he'll meet two people who have information about the hand that was cut off 27 years earlier. Brian Evans and Sara Marsh play the couple. The fourth character is a hotel clerk, Mervyn, played by Luverne Seifert, who seems like a rube but knows more than he's saying.

"The play is about storytelling," Sciple said, "and one of the best things Luverne does as an actor is play with the audience in a monologue."

Sciple said the play is not heavy on plot. It relies on suspense rather than twists.

"You're creating a time bomb and the audience knows there is a piece that is coming," he said.

Racist controversy

McDonagh drew criticism after the play's Broadway debut in 2010. Writing in the New Yorker, critic Hilton Als called the play "vile" for its treatment of the African-American character Toby and Carmichael's repeated use of the "N" word. Worse than the vocabulary itself, Als charged, was McDonagh's portrayal of Toby.

"Toby's characterization is as offensive as the language used to describe him," Als wrote.

In an October New York Times interview, McDonagh charged that the critic missed the point.

"Toby is the smartest character in the whole play; all the others are psychos," McDonagh said. "[Carmichael] is a racist and a bigot, and I don't know what other language he would be using."

It is relevant to point out that Als saw the play from the perspective of an African-American man, and McDonagh is white Irish.

Sciple said he brought the issue up with African-American actors who read for the role.

"They thought it was really funny," he said. "That doesn't mean people won't be offended. He wrote it that way and it's a really audacious thing he should try to pull off."

So, Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men. It's just another happy holiday at Gremlin.

"We thought this was an insane play and a ton of fun to do," said Hansen.

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299