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A CurtainUp Review
The Beauty Queen of Leenane
By Elyse Sommer
The many near ecstatic reviews of The Beauty Queen of Leenane -- (that's as in le-naan) --plus the media hype surrounding it's young playwright, Martin McDonagh, have made it one of the Atlantic Theater's all-time successes, with big SOLD OUT signs posted at the front door. The buzz surrounding play and playwright even before the official opening made it a sellout even for all but the supposed make-or-break-a-show critics And despite the transfer to the Walter Kerr a month from now, a number of people were lined up at the box office last Thursday hoping to buy last-minute no-show tickets. As one man, I overheard put it "I want to see it here where it started." What he meant was that this is where it started in the U.S. since the Druid Theater production real breakthrough came with its move to the Royal Court Theatre in London. What I can tell you from seeing it at the Atlantic is that it doesn't matter where you see it, as long as this outstanding production stays with director, actors and production team intact.
While I don't really believe that an actor ever "owns" a part I can't imagine anyone who could match Anna Manahan's portrayal of the mountainous, monstrous Mag Foley or Marie Mullen as Maureen, her entrapped and enraged victim and victimizer spinster daughter. The two men in the cast also give one-of-a-kind performances, Tom Murphy as Ralph and Brian O'Byrne as his older brother Pato who is the most sympathetic character of the four. Pato's epistolary proposal to Maureen, who to him is the beauty queen of the title, was for me the one scene which could stand alone to make The Beauty Queen of Leenane worth seeing. The male characters also ably project the secondary theme of the Irish would-be emigrant mentality -- Pato gone to London to find work but disappointed by the limitations and loneliness of his new life; Ralph so impatient to be gone from the boredom of the villagethat he's too impatient to wait to put Ralph's letter into Maureen's hands.
As for the play itself, is it the newest and freshest addition to the stage since Irish soda bread?
Yes and no. What's new about McDonagh's work is that it's not new at all. Instead it's an old-fashioned melodrama with a clearly defined plot, complete with a classic tumultuous mother-daughter relationship and last-chance romance and several smoking guns, (a stove poker, a letter read by the wrong person and a pair of red rubber gloves). What's fresh about it is Mr. McDonagh's ability to capture the true grit of a dismal village which offers none of life's social and emotional amenities and to transform the four Leenaners of his play into extraordinarily interesting personalities. Not unimportantly, he also peppers this dismal story with enough black humor to make even the gross business about Mag's "u-reyene" infection and habits if not amusing at least integral to the characters and the story. In short, his brutal picture of a village where decency and familial affection are homeless is disturbingly moving, entertaining and funny.
For all the rewards this play offers to serious drama goers, I'm not prepared to use adjectives like great or ground breaking to describe this young playwright. He's interesting and a good story teller and, at least in this production owes much to Garry Hynes direction, Ben Ormerod's perfectly targeted lighting of Francis O'Conner's wonderfully grungy set -- and, worth repeating, a superb cast.
In comparing this play to other British imports designed to shock our sensibilities and tweak our interest in people with whom we wouln't want to have a casual conversation on a bus, I'd say the four citizens of Leenane are more likely to etch themselves into our memories than any of those in Shopping and Fucking or Goose-Pimples. As for comparisons with current American productions, I think it will hold its own with the current crop of Broadway dramas -- not as easy to enjoy as Art, but more accessible than The Old Neighborhood.