SO WHAT ARE WE to make of the strange case of that latest lauded Irish genius, 28-year-old playwright Martin McDonagh? Most of the critics out there seem to think that his is perhaps the most original voice to come out of the Irish theater in 50 years, while a vocal minority thinks he's a sly sham of a writer with an overfondness for plot twists.
On the basis of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, I'd have to say both sides may be right. Because while there's no denying that McDonagh is a master of dialogue and character, it's also true that he willfully sabotages the complex and subtle people he's created for some short-term shocks.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane
Seattle Repertory Theater
ends February 28
Maureen (Marianne Owen) and her mother, Mag (Zoaunne Le Roy), live in a gray, decrepit farmhouse in the rain-soaked west of Ireland. Maureen looks after Mag, but it's not exactly cozy. The old woman is a slovenly monster of selfishness whose charming personal habits include dumping her chamber pot down the kitchen sink, and it's clear that her unending demands are one of the reasons her 40-year-old daughter is unmarried. Another reason is revealed in the play's first few minutes, when her hyperactive neighbor Ray (Jason Butler Harner, working a little too hard to convey youthful restlessness) drops by with an invitation for the absent Maureen to a party. Mag burns the letter rather than giving it to her daughter, and when confronted about it later, is unrepentant. "What have I ever done but kissed two men the past 40 years?" wails Maureen. "Two men is two men too much!" Mag retorts, with a spiteful stupidity almost as galling as her selfishness.
The unlikely shape of Maureen's salvation is the gangly Pato (John Procaccino), a Leenane native who's moved to London to work as a builder. Although it's taken him long enough, he finally succumbs to Maureen's charms, and spends the night with her. When he has to return to England, he promises to write—although you might suspect this isn't the most reliable form of communication in this household.
But just as McDonagh has us firmly hooked with a devastatingly real portrayal of the little tortures family members inflict on one another, he has to get all Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? on us with a series of violent acts that turn a masterful drama into a second-rate Grand Guignol. What's strangest about these contrived twists is that, for all their gore, they're considerably less affecting than what's come before. They amount to no more than a series of gross-outs bordering on self-parody. Perhaps this is the playwright's intent—but if so, it's a low one that comes across as a betrayal of his considerable gifts.
ONE UNEXPECTED PLEASURE in this play is that there's no nostalgia whatsoever in McDonagh's vision of "the old country." (This sets it blessedly apart from so many of the "immigrant" plays we've endured from American writers in the last few years.) His Ireland is a damp, poverty-stricken hell where the only salvation possible is far, far away, in the Boston that is the traditional refuge of the Irish emigrant. This stolid, gray hopelessness is embodied in Le Roy's Mag, who perversely relishes her daughter's frustrated but unbreakable devotion to her every whim. As with the Irish expatriate, there's no escaping the ties that bind.
Richard E.T. White's direction of his fine cast is witty and filled with a palpable electricity, particularly in keeping alive the scenes of deadening habit that characterize Mag's reign. Owen's defiant Maureen, smart and tough but pitifully fragile underneath, is convincing up to the point where the play abandons her, and us, with contrivance and violence. Twenty years ago, McDonagh's worst enemy would have been the censor. Now, I suspect, it's the writer himself.