An unnerving thriller, or … something else? “A Behanding in Spokane” gives bad taste a superb sendup.

The black comedy "A Behanding in Spokane" is the newest production by the Howlers Theater in Winter Park.

WINTER PARK – In a dingy motel room — the kind that almost certainly doesn’t attract tourists, folks who can afford something more upscale, or anyone who has seen “Psycho” and watched Marian Crane interact with front desk clerk Norman Bates – an admittedly menacing-looking guy has the appearance of a man on the verge of exploding, maybe even killing someone in a fit of rage.
The fact that his left hand is heavily bandaged and appears to have been badly injured – or even worse (gulp!) – only adds to the level of cold-hand-on-the-back-of-your-neck tension the audience gets from watching this rattlesnake-of-a-man pace furiously in that cramped room, in front of a thick red suitcase that’s leaning against the bed and appears to have been overstuffed with …. what?
And when there’s a sound in the next room, like a muffled voice, and the man withdraws a gun, walks in there, aims it at someone – and fires – all within the first few minutes of the show, you get the impression that the new production at the Howlers Theater in Winter Park is likely to be intensely scary and unnerving.
As it turns out, the play called “A Behanding in Spokane” serves quite a different purpose. While it did indeed keep the audience screaming, it wasn’t in waves of terror, but in repeated fits of laughter. As pitch dark a comedy as they get, one that gleefully sends good taste sailing out the window and revels in finding chuckles in a grim plot and the agonized suffering of its characters, “Behanding” is a gloriously offensive and funny kick-off for the new theater that just opened at the Art’s Sake Studio at 680 Clay St. in Winter Park.
It isn’t so much the storyline, which involves two hustling marijuana dealers who think they can scam a man who is – well, okay, you don’t get this plot every Friday or Saturday night at community theater, looking for the hand he rather painfully lost in a brutal fight – or the fact that the entire premise makes you kind of scratch your head and think, Hmm, how do two pot dealers think they can scam a guy looking for a hand? The fact that there’s a perfectly logical explanation for that – involving a museum and … well, nevermind – only adds to the fun.
It may not surprise you to know that criminals who lose their hands in undignified ways develop awfully bad tempers and are prone to the more-than-occasional fit of rage, and that the pot dealers find themselves in way over their heads. If the entire scenario doesn’t sound particularly funny, let’s just say that if your tastes run more to the newest Disney animated movie, chances are “A Behanding in Spokane” will have you popping Valium at record speed before intermission.
On the other hand, if you’re tempted by the notion of political correctness being positively savaged, or if the idea of a long phone conversation between the lead criminal and his mother after she’s fallen out of a tree being one of the play’s comedic highlights, this is not only a play you’ll cherish, but one that’s likely to prove irresistible.
You’re likely to revel in the sheer bad taste and gross humor of watching our two pot dealers, handcuffed to a radiator, try frantically to deal with a gasoline can they can’t reach, getting more and desperate as the clock keeps ticking …. or the moment when they flip open that red suitcase. Nothing happens in a way that would make the cast of “Sesame Street” smile, but again, if your tastes lie elsewhere, you have a winner in this one.
Scott Browning takes a difficult role – the raging, menacing Tom – and manages to make it seem uniquely funny, at no point better than when he’s chatting with mom who, like himself, is a raging racist, and tries to defend the fact that the first person in the room to pick up the phone was, indeed, a black man. Aaron Smalls and Jamie-Lyn Markos have some of the play’s high-pitched best moments as they make a crazed effort to spare themselves from certain death, often quarreling in a bitchy way on how best to do that. And Tony Demil brings a quirky freshness to his role as the front desk man, who is a complete doofus and seems to operate on an entirely different level of existence from the others.
As the newest community theater to hit Greater Orlando, Howlers should have a creative and energizing future. “A Behanding” demonstrates they know how to take challenging material, which could easily have fallen flat in a clumsy effort at bad taste run amok, and instead made it a high-speed roller coaster of hideous hilarity. I can’t wait for their next production.

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