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Theatre in Review: The Beauty Queen of Leenane (Harvey Theater/Brooklyn Academy of Music)

Marie Mullen, Aisling O'Sullivan, Marty Rea. Photo: Richard Termine

The ladies who make up the mother-daughter act at the heart of The Beauty Queen of Leenane are a wicked, hard-hearted pair and oh, how I've missed them. It has been nearly twenty years since Martin McDonagh's midnight-black comedy landed in New York -- and twenty can be a dangerous age for a work best known for its shock tactics; what once seemed so daring might today be a weak cup of Irish Breakfast tea. Such worries prove groundless, however: At the performance I attended, the gasps and shocked laughter happened in all the right places. McDonagh's portrait of boredom, loneliness, and skullduggery in the west of Ireland has lost none of its power to amuse -- and appall.

You've never seen passive-aggression practiced so masterfully as by Mag, the 70-year-old lump of a woman who presides over her daughter Maureen. Seated in the rocking chair in which she spends her waking hours, staring at the television or the walls with the same expression of blank incomprehension, Mag has honed her technique of endless, needling complaints. Subtly punishing Maureen for arriving home late, she proudly notes that she made her own cup of Complan (a local dietary supplement), then moans about the lumps in it. She wonders, ever so nicely, if the radio might not be a bit too loud. Handed her porridge, she wonders, in her distinctive whine, where is her tea?

Mag also keeps up a riotously inane running commentary on any number of issues, slowly, but surely, driving Maureen around the bend. She can't help around the house, she insists, because she has "a urine infection." Maureen tartly notes that such an affliction never stopped anyone from making a cup of Complan. Mag, cowering like a crone in a Dickens novel, replies, "And the hot water, too, I do be scared of. Scared I may scald meself." Listening to an Irish radio program, Mag snaps, irritably, "Why can't they just speak English like everybody?" Maureen, her body stretched as taut as piano wire, explains that English is not native to Ireland. Well, replies Mag, if they don't speak English, how will they get jobs in England or the United States? Mag notes that Maureen never stops to talk to their neighbors, then obsesses over a news story about "the fella up and murdered the poor oul woman in Dublin and he didn't even know her....That's a fella it would be better not to talk to." By this point, Maureen is openly fantasizing about having the fellow over for the evening. Mag, whose chief characteristic is a total lack of irony, wonders why her daughter would invite a vicious criminal into their home. "For the pleasure of me company he'd come," Maureen replies. "Killing you, it'd just be a bonus for him."

This back-and-forth has a certain vaudeville-meets-Samuel Beckett quality -- Mag's relentless, pitiful requests for tea and other amenities is oddly reminiscent of Hamm, in Endgame, asking piteously, "Is it not time for my painkiller?" -- but there are more sinister undercurrents at work. When Ray Dooley, a local lad, drops by to invite Mag and Maureen -- really Maureen, for Mag never goes anywhere -- to a party for some relatives from Boston, Mag fails to deliver the message. Maureen catches her mother in a lie and forces on her a lumpy cup of Complan and a handful of biscuits that she detests, insisting that she devour every crumb. Suddenly, sneakily, a question has been posed: Who is abusing whom in this grim concrete country cottage?

It's a question that continues to reverberate with the introduction of a potential agent of change: Maureen attends that party and brings home Pato, a local man who now lives in England, taking lousy, low-level construction jobs that, nevertheless, pay more than anything in Leenane. Pato has long pined for Maureen, yet is taken aback when she all but drags him upstairs for the night, all the better to parade him in front of a shocked Mag the next morning. Another troubling question arises: Is Maureen, a virgin at 40, really attracted to Pato, or is he just a pawn in her ongoing war with Mag? Then Mag drops a bombshell about Maureen's past, which once again has us reviewing the bidding, unsure who really has the upper hand.

And so it goes, with a long monologue by Pato, in the form or a crucial letter, which once again recalibrates our understanding of the plot, followed by a stunningly malicious act on the part of Mag, an ugly, gloves-off confrontation, and a pair of twists that never fails to send the audience reeling out of the theatre. In his first play, McDonagh displays a knack for dramatic construction that some playwrights never achieve; he has also mapped out his own unique dramatic terrain, in which malice, violence, and screwball comedy all coexist with remarkably equanimity.

The production at BAM isn't so much a revival as a recreation, with the original producer (the company known as Druid), director (Garry Hynes), and set designer (Francis O'Connor), but differences in casting that are responsible for subtle shifts in tone. Marie Mullen, who so memorably created the role of Maureen, this time plays Mag; unlike Anna Manahan, who created the role, she isn't an outsized pillar of spite, but she has plenty of tricks up her sleeve. In the opening scene she is a riotously addled semi-invalid, beating logic to death with her pointless verbal wanderings. But pay attention to her open-mouthed shock, a look that hardens into a murderous scowl, as she realizes Maureen has allowed a man to spend the night. Notice also how savagely she throws Maureen's new dress in a corner, or, after Pato departs, how brutally she crushes her daughter's hopes with a single remark ("He won't write at all"). And, for all the rancor bubbling up, there's something heartbreaking about her cry ("But who'll look after me, so?") when she fears she may be abandoned or put in a home.

Aisling O'Sullivan's Maureen seems younger and more conventionally attractive than did Mullen the first time around, but she is less tough, whether she is regarding her mother with simmering fury or entering in her slip, sitting on Pato's lap, and giving him a passionate kiss, all for the benefit of the horrified Mag. Under her hard shell, however, is a sadder, more confused woman, so beaten down by her loveless existence that she is all too capable of making certain disastrous decisions. Marty Rea's Pato is more of a charmer than that of his predecessor, BrĂ­an F. O'Byrne, and he has a natural chemistry with O'Sullivan, making it more believable that they might end up together. As Ray, Pato's idiot brother, an ADD-afflicted layabout whose message-delivering skills prove to be catastrophically inadequate, Aaron Monaghan magically transforms stupidity and impatience into laughter.

Brooklyn Academy of Music's expansive Harvey Theater is not the ideal venue for a play that depends on a certain sense of claustrophobia for its dramatic tension; O'Connor has basically recreated his 1988 set, adding a rather disconcerting blue-sky backdrop that appears to have been borrowed from another production altogether. James F. Ingalls' meticulous lighting design creates a variety of effective time-of-day looks. Greg Clarke's sound design includes a couple of television programs, a rain storm, and bells; he also provides solid reinforcement for Paddy Cunneen's mournful incidental music.

As subsequent productions of McDonagh's plays have shown, he relies, more than most playwrights, on directors who can bring to life his blackly comic view of life in the Irish countryside as a battle to the finish. Nobody understands his work better than Garry Hynes, who ensures that this production moves confidently to its macabre double-twist ending. I suspect that, in another twenty years, the play will have lost little of its sulfuric appeal. This beauty queen's reign of terror is far from over. -- David Barbour


(17 January 2017)

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