Martin McDonagh, the 28-year-old Irish-English playwright who wrote the award-winning, critically acclaimed The Beauty Queen of Leenane currently at the Alley, has hit some sort of deep-in-the-heart nerve with his audiences. In the New Republic, Robert Brustein claimed that "McDonagh is destined to be one of the theatrical luminaries of the 21st century." Adjectives such as "stunning," "perfect," "beautiful," "hugely successful" and "the real thing" are but some of the praise heaped on McDonagh's work (all this for a writer who has not even entered his thirties).
Then there are the wonderfully romantic stories told about the man himself: how he got soused at an awards ceremony and told Sean Connery to fuck off, how he dropped out of school at 16 and taught himself to write with a handbook, how he still lives in his parents' house with his older brother because they "like the same TV shows." Indeed, Martin McDonagh seems every bit the surprising sort of oddball renegade who could easily capture the imagination and the aesthetic of a skeptical audience raised on TV, movie stars and an irritating truth that says you can't get anywhere without an education.
Thus it makes a loopy sort of backward logic that McDonagh's Beauty Queen goes down on its figurative knees with reverence to the kind of old-fashioned storytelling not practiced much anymore. What could be more surprising in these days of outlandish performance art and postmodern intellectualism than a classic, one-set play full of darkly foreboding foreshadowing, the sort of loaded guns that Chekhov declared must go off by the end of the play and a melodramatic plot that spins to its inevitable climax all because of a single letter.
Even the four characters are strangely familiar. Mag Folen (Bettye Fitzpatrick) is mother, keeper and tormentor of her daughter Maureen (Elizabeth Heflin), who returns the favor by looking after and abusing the old woman. Their relationship is a sort of hate/hate thing between two women trapped in a backward Irish town. Leenane is the sort of poverty-stricken place where the only thing to do is "look out your window" and watch the calves go by.
Brothers Ray (Adam Stein) and Pato Dooley (Craig Bockhorn), who come from down the road a ways, serve as a catalyst to the final conflict between this ancient mother and middle-aged daughter. When Pato comes home after being away in England, he invites Maureen over for a "do" and thus starts Maureen's downward psychological spiral which reveals the real and, yes, surprising reason that Maureen can't leave Leenane.
The rather old-hat plot of the trapped, spooky spinster and her manipulative old codger of a mother could not hold a moment's interest were it not for the odd bumps and bruises that fill McDonagh's dark, Irish vision. The script is loaded up with weirdly riveting behavior that comes from two seemingly ordinary characters. This contradiction has a poetic strangeness that left the opening night audience often gasping in wonder. In fact, McDonagh has said that he "loves to be in the theater and watch ... people in the audience jump out of their skins.... It's a power thing." He enjoys filling his scripts with surprise, mystery and unexpected violence that pin the scenes of his powerful plays together.
But even with all the unexpected moments in Beauty Queen, there's an almost formulaic quality to its plot; any attentive playgoer ought to be able to predict the ending at the close of Act One. But as with all interesting stories, it's not so much where you are going as how you get there. And one of the most compelling elements of Beauty Queen is McDonagh's absolutely gorgeous use of ordinary, everyday language.
In the New York Times McDonagh has said that "If you've got time to waste, you might as well waste it listening to people." Obviously, listening has paid off for this writer. The dialogue is at turns funny, charming, bawdy gutter speak, downright mean and always utterly real. Maureen imagines "clobbering" her mother. She won't give her mother the spoon she asks for, sing-songing, "no little spoons for liars in this house." And when she dreams of getting a man after her mother dies she turns to her mum and says with lilting irony, "I suppose now you'll never be dying."
Of course, without a performance as stunning as Heflin's, these wondrous lines would be lost. Heflin is a red-haired, creamy-skinned beauty who manages to hide her charms under the dowdy posture and clothes of a woman who's given up all hope of ever being loved and admired. She stomps around in rubber boots or worn out slippers, her flaming hair yanked back in an pathetic twist at the back of her head and her lovely face hidden behind what must be the oldest pair of plastic frame glasses on the planet. But Heflin's Maureen is also spiteful, smart and enormously tragic in her painful attempts to make her world right.
As Maureen's mother and nemesis, Mag, Fitzpatrick occupies the stage and her rocking chair with all the stubborn immobility of a boulder. She pulls a hideous orange afghan up under her chin and rocks away the minutes as she makes it perfectly clear that she's not going anywhere, ever, and she doesn't care how much her daughter suffers because of it.
The men in the cast are every bit as good as the women. Stein's Ray constitutes one of the most delightful components of the production. He is quirky and wonderful to look at with his skinny neck, bony face and his britches hitched up well above his ankles. His timing is smart and ironic, and his physical life on stage is reason enough to see the show twice.
Bockhorn's Pato is the only "normal" character in this bizarre world occupied by repressed people who've been cooped up too long. He comes from England with hope, joy and desire, all standing in stark relief to the raging hopelessness of Leenane. His sadly romantic epistle to Maureen, which Bockhorn narrates as he stands alone on stage, provides one of the most sweetly poignant moments of the night. It is an example of grown-up love at its absolute best.
All these disparate elements are brought into focus with Ethan McSweeny's intelligent and seamless direction and with Kevin Rigdon's heartbreaking set, which is the miserable Folan kitchen full of broken-down appliances and grimy gimcracks. Behind this sad room rises the bucolic Irish landscape in all its pastoral splendor. The irony of these antithetical images only adds to the tragedy of Maureen's story.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane is a rich and luscious addition to Houston's theatrical season. And with it the Alley offers Houstonians the rare ability to see one of the most talked-about plays running on Broadway.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane plays at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue, (713)228-8421, through February 6. $31-$46.
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