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A CurtainUp Review
The Beauty Queen of Leenane

Don't you deserve a life? — Pato Dooley, writing to Maureen Folan inThe Beauty Queen of Leenane.
Marie Mullen and Aisling O'Sullivan. Photo credit: Craig Schwartz
The digs are mean and grungy. Outside a dingy window in hardscrabble Connemara, Ireland, the landscape may be picturesque, but nobody actually wants to live there (although everyone posits that life in England is even worse). It's on this spot that spinster Maureen Folan and her battle-axe of a mother, Mag, play out a daily script of abuse and manipulation with Maureen regularly threatening her mum with bodily harm. When visitors arrive, they remark that the house smells like human piss. This makes a certain amount of sense since Mag routinely empties her chamber pot down the kitchen sink.

The above described scene of "domesticity" from The Beauty Queen of Leenane won't serve as much of an advertisement for the Connemara Department of Tourism, and we're only just getting started. Things are about to get grim, but while playwright Martin McDonagh is making us squirm, he's also cuing up, of all things, the laugh track. And we're laughing because, for the past 20 years, McDonagh has conditioned his audiences well. By now we are fully expected to chuckle, hiss, tssk, gasp and even yell at the characters not to take actions that are clearly as inevitable as rainfall.

That Beauty Queen &emdash; McDonagh's first play &emdash; is still such a sucker punch of delight can be chalked up to his unique talent. Whether the Druid Theatre's revival of Beauty Queen at the Mark Taper Forum is your first visit to McDonagh's Connemara or whether you have been a regular guest, prepare for some macabre charm. It certainly helps that the production is being piloted by its original director Garry Hynes and also features the return of its Tony Award-winning star Marie Mullen who originated the role of Maureen, and this go-round takes a whack at Mag.

Hynes's cast of Mullin, Aisling O'Sullivan, Aaron Monaghan and Marty Rea delivers keenly observed performances in service of a script that sets up one scenario before gleefully yanking out the rug. McDonagh will never be for all tastes, but if you've got the stomach, and don't mind having your brain messed with, the rewards are bountiful. Director Hynes knows this landscape so well, and with Francis O'Connor supplying the appropriately stark scenes and costumes, Hynes and the actors take care of the rest.

The play's title refers to Maureen, who is no beauty and no queen. As she trudges through her house, removing lumps of oatmeal from Mag's cup, switching off the TV or radio to satisfy her mother's every whim, Maureen (O'Sullivan) is an embodiment of bitterness and defeat. Desperate for any kindness and still a virgin in her late 30s, Maureen blames her mother for every miserable element of her existence. And she's probably not wrong. As easy as it could be to make this mother-daughter act a sketch, O'Sullivan and Mullin slip in the occasional moments of, if not shared affection, certainly knowingness. For better or worse, they get each other and know how to press each other's buttons.

On this particular day, the arrival of Ray Dooley (Monaghan), a neighborhood boy, breaks up the monotony and may even offer a ray of hope for escape. Ray's brother Pato (Rea), a laborer who works in England, is back in the village and Maureen is invited to a party in his honor. That's only if Mag bothers to deliver the invitation.

Back in the day, Pato gave Maureen her nickname and when he brings her home after the party, it is clear the two still share plenty of sexual chemistry. Rea shines as a village lothario who, when not putting the moves on the ladies, is actually a shy and lonely chap himself. Of course he's in way over his head, since Maureen is trying to throw her seduction of Pato in her mother's face, and since there are other things about our titular "beauty queen" that neither Pato nor the audience yet know.

We'll get it soon enough. As previously noted, there are instances in Beauty Queen that are extremely difficult to watch and others that had my audience all but yelling aloud at Ray Dooley to make a fateful decision. He doesn't, and there are consequences. That's fine by McDonagh who cares not a whit about justice &emdash; poetic or otherwise.

Playing a character who is keeping her demons at bay and still trying to be some kind of a dutiful daughter, O'Sullivan asks for no pity and her performance is frighteningly good. And what a treat it is to observe the work of Mullen, her wizened and sagging face a mixture of dementia, desperation and duplicity. For Maureen's sake, we so want to despise Mag; Mullen makes this easy solution impossible.

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The Beauty Queen of Leenane by Martin McDonagh
Directed by Garry Hynes

Cast: Marie Mullen, Aisling O'Sullivan, Aaron Monaghan, Marty Rea
Set and Costume Design: Francis O'Connor
Lighting Design: James F. Ingalls
Sound Design: Greg Clarke
Composer: Paddy Cunneen
Fight Director: Bryan Burroughs
Plays through December 18, 2016 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. (213) 628-2772,
Running time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission
Reviewed by Evan Henerson 

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