The Irish have the gift of the gab to be sure. In America, up until the 21st Century, the general image of Ireland and its people was mainly shaped by Hollywood. Actors like John Wayne, Ward Bond, Victor McLaglen, Barry Fitzgerald, Maureen O’Hara, and Director John Ford, plus many more over the years, were responsible for setting the tone and image of the Emerald Isle.
As a result, we tend to view the Irish as charmin’, whimsical folk, with a twinkle in their eyes and a ready smile and a quick wit with which to enliven social gatherings. Well, there’s more to the Irish than George Bernard Shaw, Irish Whisky, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and a somewhat publicly held image concerning their rowdy, pugnacious nature along with the lilt of Irish laughter.
British-born, Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, has a much darker view of his heritage and their behavior (the IRA notwithstanding). McDonagh has said, “Theatre is never going to be edgy in the way I want it to be”. Which, for those who have not viewed his plays before, is a clue as to what one can expect to see in his dramadey of rural, bleak, West Ireland existence.
“The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” a black comedy written by McDoagh in 1996 and staged on Broadway in 1998, returns in a riveting revival production at the Mark Taper Forum, solidly directed by longtime McDonagh associate Garry Hynes; both veterans of the Druid Theatre in Galway, Ireland, as is the entire cast.
The story revolves around Mag Folan, an elderly mother brilliantly played by Marie Mullen, who is one of those maddeningly dependent and demanding women of a certain age who love to manipulate those about them under the guise of helplessness. Mother-daughter love/hate relationships are timeless and are always relevant for audiences.
Mag’s actions guarantee a miserable existence for her never-married 40 year-old daughter Maureen, sensationally performed by Aisling O’Sullivan, who grudgingly responds to her mother’s constant demand for attention. “Where’s me porridge bowl Maureen?” “Could I have another cuppa of tea dear?” In addition, Mag is nosy, a gossip, and self-centered. Maureen is Cinderella without any wicked step-sisters. She cleans, cooks, does the bills, and is expected to be on call 24/7. Not a recipe for a happy home life, however, Maureen is quite capable of living on her own if she has to, and she’s a ‘looker’ too.
A respite from Maureen’s hell arrives in the form of 40 something year-old, unemployed neighbor, Pato Dooley, terrifically played by Marty Rea. Pato has had a yen for Maureen for some time but doesn’t quite know to how to broach the subject of dating. He is shy and careful not to offend or appear overeager, being almost obsequious in his moments with her. Pato’s letter in Act Two to Maureen from London where he is temporarily working, is a comedy monologue masterpiece. His plea in commitment to continue the relationship is a sublime comedy moment that is met with rousing audience applause at its conclusion.
When the moment of their dating/ mating dance finally does begin, along with too many drinks, Pato becomes Maureen’s sleepover bedmate as Mag discovers in the morning while getting her own breakfast for a change. No Maureen to wait on her and then Pato comes down stairs zipping up his trousers. The comedy exchanges and sly dialogue throughout the two act play speaks comedy, but those who are familiar with McDonagh plays know he tends toward grisly denouements. He’s a fan of movie director Quentin Tarantino. Need I say more? However, no spoiler alerts here.
The brilliance of “Beauty Queen” lies in the performances of its actors. Ms Mullen, Ms. O’Sullivan, Mr. Rea, and Mr. Aaron Monaghan, who plays Ray Dooley, Pato’s young brother. Monaghan is the comedy relief in the play, but I had a devil of a time understanding that heavy brogue of his spoken at warp speed.
“The Beauty Queen of Leenane” is definitely a Druid company family affair. Set Designer/Costume designer Francis O’Connor renders a home that is bleak and dingy, with costumes to match the mood lighting of Designer James F. Ingalls. Sound Designer Greg Clarke and Composer Paddy Cunneen, are also Druid associates of long standing.
The riveting comedy/drama revival performs at the Mark Taper Forum through December 18, 2016.