Monday, January 23, 2017

124. Review: THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE (seen January 22, 2017)

“Women’s Fights”

Martin McDonagh (The Pillowman, The Cripple of Inishmaan), London-born and raised, but whose densely atmospheric black comedies set in Ireland make him a full-blooded Irish playwright, began his ascent about 20 years ago when Galway’s then new Druid Theatre produced The Beauty Queen of Leenane under Garry Hynes’s potent direction. Two years after its Irish premiere it made it to Broadway, where it was regaled and Hynes became the first woman director to win a Tony. (The production won four of its six nominations.)

Now it’s back in another splendidly Hynes-helmed, Druid-originated revival, for a month-long run at BAM’s Harvey Theatre before moving to other cities. The cast includes Marie Mullen, who played Maureen Folan in the original (for which she, too, won a Tony) as Mag, Maureen’s harridan of a mother. Aisling O’Sullivan is the new Maureen, inspiration for the title. As others have pointed out, the casting makes ironically palpable the notion that women often turn into their mothers.
Marie Mullen, Aisling O'Sullivan. Photo: Richard Termine.
With sizzling venom, Maureen and Mag slug it out in this darkly hilarious play about a 40-year-old virgin caretaking for her nasty wreck of a mother, the women tied to each other by a complex web of visceral hatred and dutiful love. They live in a disintegrating, rural cottage in Leenane, Connemara, designed by Francis O’Connor to suggest barebones poverty; the set, though, is so sprawling in its need to fill the stage’s wide expanse that it weakens the feeling of a cage in which two snarling beasts face off with one another. Further diluting the visuals is the upper half of the roofless set, showing a gloomy sky against which reams of rain keep pouring down, looking—under James F. Ingalls’s otherwise sensitive lighting—like wave after wave of shaggy gray hair.

Nonetheless, the performances are so vigorously pointed and the comedic sparks so fiery that you can’t help but be drawn in as Mag, whose habits include emptying her bedpan in the kitchen sink, does little but sit in her rocker and order Maureen about with a nonstop barrage of ridicule and contempt. Mullen is marvelous at making us laugh at Mag’s willful cruelty as she digs under her daughter’s skin with a combination of vocal bullets and shifting facial expressions and bodily positions.
Marie Mullen, Aisling O'Sullivan, Marty Rea. Photo: Richard Termine.
Maureen, once the victim of a nervous breakdown that sent her to the “loony bin,” is a tense livewire, carefully walking the tightrope between accepting her domestic martyrdom and blowing her blonde-haired top. O’Sullivan manages the balancing act with delicacy and strength. 

Maureen, desperate for a man, eventually meets an appealing construction worker named Pato Dooley (Marty Rea, wonderful) at a dinner dance the malicious Mag tried to prevent her from knowing about. The budding relationship with Pato, who thinks of Maureen as “the beauty queen of Leenane,” alarms Mag, who fears losing Maureen’s support. After they spend a night together, Pato and Maureen hit a bump in the road, and he takes a job in England.
Marty Rea, Aisling O'Sullivan. Photo: Richard Termine.
Act Two begins with the spotlighted Pato, unsure of Maureen’s feelings, writing to her to join him in America, where he’s been offered a job. He then writes to his childish brother, Ray (an amusing but occasionally over-accented Aaron Monaghan), insisting in this pre-Internet world that he hand Maureen’s letter directly to her, although he fails to insist that he not hand it to her mother.
Aisling O'Sullivan, Marie Mullen. Photo: Richard Termine.
The wonderfully written and performed letter monologue is a highlight, but the contents make instantly clear where the plot will be going. Still, even more egregious tests of credibility and dramaturgic validity lie ahead, especially in the closing minutes and their foreshadowed violence.  Nonetheless, McDonagh’s ripe, broguish language, his feisty characterizations, and the richly voiced, emotionally honest, and comically vibrant acting, keep you constantly engrossed.
Aaron Monaghan, Marie Mullen. Photo: Richard Termine.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane may not be the masterpiece it once seemed but its beauties, especially when given a mostly definitive performance, can’t be denied.
Aisling O'Sullivan. Photlo: Richard Termine.


Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM)/Harvey Theatre
651 Fulton St., Brooklyn
Through February 5


  1. In a way, Pato’s monologue, enjoyable as it was, was superfluous. There was nothing in it that wasn’t (or at least couldn’t have been) revealed later. For example, the terms of delivery were made clear by Ray while he was waiting with Mag for Maureen to return, and the letter’s message transpired when Maureen tortured it out of Mag. Without hearing Pato’s monologue, we would not have known whether or not Mag was lying or making the message up, as a victim of torture might do. Moreover, its message would have remained unknown to us or else had to have been revealed by some other means. The excision of the monologue would also have given Maureen a chance to make the message up herself—which would have been in character—a lie that could have been exposed later, just as the lies in her monologue in the penultimate scene were exposed in the last one. We would have had to learn about the infelicities of Pato’s and Maureen’s night together after the dance by some other means than the monologue. My sense is that monologue “greased” some of the wheels of the plot; however, without it the play would have had more suspense and mystery and therefore packed an even more stinging and powerful punch than it already does.

  2. Thanks for your sensible comment on the monologue. McDonagh was clearly struggling with a problem of exposition that he wasn't able to solve. And he gives away the store with his insistence that Ray hand the letter only to Maureen. The last 10 minutes of the play are equally problematic and out of sync with what's come before, regardless of the foreshadowing, but the performances and the language go a long way toward making it work as theatre. Again, thanks for your thoughtful note.