Friday, January 20, 2017

Theater Review—“The Beauty Queen of Leenane” at BAM

The Beauty Queen of Leenane
Written by Martin McDonagh; directed by Garry Hynes
Performances through February 5, 2017
BAM Harvey Theatre, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, NY

Marie Mullen, Aisling O'Sullivan and Aaron Monaghan (photo: Stepehen Cummiskey)
The world of playwright Martin McDonagh is more sardonic than malevolent, and his Tony-winning The Beauty Queen of Leenane, is also the most notable: he introduces characters who put one another through physical and emotional wringers, often nonsensically, sometimes amusingly: but, in the end, we don’t give a “feck” (to use his favorite epithet) about them.

Maureen, a 40-year-old spinster living with her aging mum Mag in their barebones home in the small Irish village of Leenane, rues wasting her prime years taking care of Mag instead of having her own life. One evening, she returns from a party with Pato, himself home from doing construction work in England; he spends the night, to Mag’s shock. Maureen pretends that they had great sex and are now a couple; but before Pato leaves for Boston, his letter imploring her to join him—which he has his younger brother Ray deliver to her—ends up in Mag’s hands, and Maureen’s plans for the future are again thwarted.

McDonagh writes lively dialogue, but he also likes a rigged game. These people have wit and clever retorts but are also underbrained: we are asked to swallow more improbabilities than we can keep track of. How have Maureen and Pato never gotten together in the decades before the party? Why is Ray so imbecile that he wouldn’t wait to track down Maureen to give her Pato’s letter instead of leaving it for Mag to open? Why would Mag dump a pot of her urine into the kitchen sink every morning without cleaning anything afterwards? And does Maureen’s long-ago mental breakdown have anything to do with the play’s sleight-of-hand ending, which suggests that some—if not all—of the preceding two-plus hours are her own imaginings?

Obviously all this is so that McDonagh can make a black comedy unconstrained by rules of logic: Ray, who earlier complained to Mag that Maureen kept his swingball that got into her yard when he was a child years ago, happens to find it on a shelf near the door when he visits Maureen at play’s end. The power plays and emotional blackmail the women perform on each other become enervating after awhile, which McDonagh himself senses: the sudden eruption of violence is the next step, however implausibly it’s dramatized.

Still, while watching it certainly holds interest, and that’s due to director Garry Hynes, sensitive to McDonagh’s rhythms, and her cast, which makes these shenanigans for the most part entertaining. Marty Rea (Pato) and Aaron Monaghan (Ray) are never believable as brothers but they have McDonagh’s rap down pat, especially Rea in Pato’s monologue that opens act two.

Marie Mullen—who won a Tony as Maureen in 1996—plays Mag with knowing derisiveness, even if she is a shade too broad in her portrayal. Best is Aisling O’Sullivan as a simply stunning Maureen: she makes this self-contradictory virgin/sadist plausibly vulnerable and even sympathetic. What she does with Maureen’s barking insults and moments of defeated silence is create a fatally wounded woman who far surpasses what McDonagh himself dreamed up on the page.

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