'The Beauty Queen of Leenane': Theater Review

Courtesy of Craig Schwartz
From left: Marie Mullen, Marty Rea and Aisling O'Sullivan in 'The Beauty Queen of Leenane'
A tragedy that will make you roar with laughter.
12/18/2016

Celebrating its 20th anniversary, the pitch-black tragicomedy that launched Martin McDonagh's career returns with original director Garry Hynes and Tony-winning actress Marie Mullen.

In 1996, playwright Martin McDonagh sent an unsolicited two-hander about a combative mother-daughter relationship to Galway’s first professional theater company, Druid. The company's co-founders, director Garry Hynes and actor Marie Mullen, took a chance on The Beauty Queen of Leenane, receiving stellar reviews for their gamble. That spurred a move to London, followed by Broadway in 1998, where the play won four Tony Awards, including best director for Hynes and best actress for Mullen, who played the daughter, Maureen Folan. The success launched McDonagh’s career, continuing with a string of acclaimed stage work as well as a distinctive move into film. Twenty years on, the play has aged like a bottle of fine Irish whiskey, with Hynes returning to the helm and Mullen again starring, this time as Maureen's mother Mag, in an outstanding production that’s as witty as it is shocking.

Rain and mist are seen outside the window of scenic designer Francis O'Connor’s somber gray kitchen and sitting area where the play's action takes place. Mag has been burned before, not just by two daughters who rarely visit her in her dingy Galway hilltop hovel, but also by a kitchen accident that scalded her hand. Mag's third daughter Maureen (Aisling O'Sullivan) has devoted the past 20 years to her mother's care, but Mag spends most of her time grumbling to her about the lumps in her Complan, a beverage whose name is just a vowel short of “complain.”

Maureen, unmarried and in her mid-forties, returns an even share of the griping, chastising the old woman for dumping her pee pot in the kitchen sink and threatening her if she doesn’t finish her nourishing drink. It’s a familiar setup — a young person held back by a needy parent afraid to let go — but McDonagh rides an improbable line between sophistication and folksiness, delivering a rare tragedy that contains more laughs than sobs.

Marty Rea, in a performance that brings a semblance of normality to the proceedings, plays a local admirer, Pato Dooley, who may be the solution to what ails Maureen. In a letter to be delivered by his kid brother Ray (a goofy Aaron Monaghan), Pato invites her to join him in the U.S. But Mag just may turn out to be an obstacle too big to overcome.

And so it goes, back and forth between two women who seem to have inhabited the stage long before the audience arrives. At age 63, Mullen, with her dumpy shuffle and an expression that combines pleading with invective, seems so ideally suited to play Mag that it’s hard to imagine her in the role of Maureen. She shares much of her daughter’s frustration and anger but reveals it only with her eyes, whereas O’Sullivan physically counteracts, buzzing about the kitchen and flirting with Pato.

Both women contend with unenviable circumstances, but the vitriol between them isn’t just a tough exterior masking their true fondness; their enmity is genuine. Even as Maureen appears to be a victim digging her way out of a soul-crushing situation, she is also a bully, just like her mother, and capable of the unexpected.

When Chris Pine starred in The Lieutenant of Inishmore at the Taper in 2010, the production required a reservoir of blood and a dead cat, not unusual in a play or movie by McDonagh. Hynes' subsequent production, The Cripple of Inishmaan at the Kirk Douglas Theater, followed by her 2015 staging of Arthur Miller’s The Price, drew less blood but continued accolades. In each of them, as in this play, she demonstrated a keen understanding of psychology as action.

McDonagh’s Ireland is a dour place, characterized by hope and disappointment, clever wit and casual cruelty, all elements of the human condition. There’s no post-modern sleight of hand in the writer's oeuvre, nor are there profound political pronouncements or philosophical notions, just good old-fashioned playwriting with crafty setups, gratifying payoffs and, most of all, a sharp grasp of the internal and external conflicts that drive us forward and beat us back.

The Taper is this production’s first U.S. stop, with runs scheduled for the Brooklyn Academy of Music in January, followed by ArtsEmerson in Boston, the August Wilson Center in Pittsburgh and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Venue: Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles
Cast: Aaron Monaghan, Marie Mullen, Aisling O’Sullivan, Marty Rea
Director: Garry Hynes
Playwright: Martin McDonagh
Set & costume designer: Francis O’Connor
Lighting designer: James F. Ingalls
Music: Paddy Cunneen
Sound designer: Greg Clarke
Presented by Druid, Center Theatre Group, in association with David Eden Productions

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