A much-heralded play, given a production lacking depth.

By Cary M. Mazer

The Cripple of Inishmaan

Wilma Theater, Broad and Spruce Sts., through April 4, 215-546-STAGE

ou shouldn't laugh at other people's misfortunes," complains Billy (Daniel P. Curtin), a handicapped teenaged orphan on one of the sparsely populated Aran Islands off Ireland's west coast in 1934, to one of the islanders who routinely call him "Cripple Billy." To which the islander responds with a simple, dumbfounded question: "Why?"

That this question remains unanswered is not surprising, given the dramatic strategies of Martin McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishmaan. No, we are not invited to join the islanders in laughing at Billy's misfortunes; but we are certainly invited - or, rather, cajoled, browbeaten and manipulated - to laugh at each and every one of the others.

The Cripple of Inishmaan, at least as it is staged by Jiri Zizka at the Wilma, is a full-length Irish freak show. There are Billy's two simpleminded foster aunts, one (June Squibb) who has conversations with rocks, the other (Patricia O'Connell), somewhat less simpleminded, who sneaks candies. There's the town slut (Tessa Auberjonois) who works for the egg man and chucks his inventory at anyone who crosses her; her simpleminded brother (David Bardeen), obsessed with sweets and with telescopes; a big-hearted local boatman (Colin Lane) who is as likely to pelt his adversaries with large stones as the slut is with eggs; and a parasitical professional gossip (Nesbitt Blaisdell) who for the past 60 years has been trying to force his mother (Barbara Winters-Pinto) to drink herself to death.

There's more to the play, I'd like to think, than a freak show. On an adjacent island, the American documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty is filming The Man of Aran, his romanticized view of Irish hardships. The islanders deride Flaherty for his failure to capture the grimy reality of their real lives; but they then romanticize their lives themselves, alternately flattering themselves about how desirable Ireland must be if Hollywood directors visit, and dreaming of landing roles in the movie and escaping from their fellow freaks by going to California.

Zizka's production misses these layers of irony by being unironically picturesque. David P. Gordon's set (ingeniously designed to facilitate scene changes) is too pretty, its clean surfaces artificially painted with brightly colored algae and grime; and the hems of Janus Stefanowicz's costumes are artfully tattered.

Perhaps the director is playing theatrical games with this, deliberately emphasizing the artificiality of the play's gritty realism, tricking us into accepting obvious fictions for realities; the play lays several traps like this, which Zizka might be setting up. But the result is that we can't take any of it seriously: not the conditions that have crippled each and every one of the islanders, nor Billy's desperate need to romanticize his dead parents.

Curtin's performance in the title role doesn't help. He made me believe that he was a cripple; but I never believed that he was a teenager, and I never believed the deep wounds that make him willing to accept the various accounts he hears about the circumstances of his parents' deaths. And without that belief, the multiple reversals of the end of the play seem like dramaturgical contrivances.

It's undoubtedly more difficult to negotiate the balance of comedy and deep drama, of romance and realism, of satire and earnestness, of The Cripple of Inishmaan than it is to capture the straightforward tragic grisliness of McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane (to be staged by the Philadelphia Theatre Company this spring). But since Zizka doesn't strike this balance, all that we're left with is the freak show.