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Theater review: The Beauty Queen of Leenane comes to Brooklyn

Written by
David Cote

Martin McDonagh plays leave a sour tang in the mouth, which actually helps you remember these shallow shockers afterward. His characters are stubbornly two-dimensional, his plots are mechanical with predictably bloody climaxes. The best of his writing digs a bit deeper: a fabulist caught in the gears of a police state in The Pillowman. Ranking just below that is The Beauty Queen of Leenane (1996), his breakout drama, a dance of death between scheming, malicious Mag (Marie Mullen) and her miserably virginal, middle-aged daughter, Maureen (Aisling O’Sullivan). If McDonagh dangles hope for the night to rise to heights of poetry and tragedy, he gleefully stomps it into the ground by the end.

Tantalizingly, the first half of Beauty Queen is almost a pared-down Celtic riff on The Glass Menagerie: overbearing mother, daughter with mental problems, a gentleman caller (Marty Rea) who offers escape from a stifling household. For a fourth presence, there’s no Tom Wingfield waxing lyrical on the sidelines; instead it’s Ray Dooley (Aaron Monaghan), an imbecilic local who, unbeknownst to him, figures large in the story. See, Ray is supposed to deliver an important letter to Maureen, and to her alone.… Ah, but I’m spoiling the plot, and plot is practically all this playwright has.

That’s not entirely fair: McDonagh has a great ear for the repetitive, singsong blather of his rural Irish characters, who are bored to death and keen to gossip and nurse grudges or goad each other into argument. It’s a bit like the great John Millington Synge—had Synge been raised on a steady diet of punk rock and the films of Quentin Tarantino.

Garry Hynes, the first woman to win a directing Tony  (for her Beauty Queen staging in 1998), returns with her fearless Druid troupers for a solidly entertaining revival. Notable among the cast is Mullen, the original Maureen, now old enough to play the wheedling, malingering Mag. Mullen makes a full meal of her role, which, perversely, grows more pathetic the meaner she gets. O’Sullivan’s Maureen is a dead-eyed, snarling dogsbody, but able to transform into a trembling, love-starved little girl. Rea exudes the right amount of provincial insecurity as Maureen’s suitor, Pato. With these vibrant, lusty performers at the controls, the grim machinery of McDonagh’s amoral morality tale clicks into place: so ugly you can’t take your eyes off it.

BAM Harvey Theater (Off Broadway). By Martin McDonagh. Directed by Garry Hynes. With Marie Mullen, Aisling O’Sullivan, Marty Rea, Aaron Monaghan. Running time: 2hrs 30mins. One intermission. Through Feb 5. Click here for full ticket and venue information. 

Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote       

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