To be young, gifted and Irish is to inherit one of theater's most prized reputations. Wilde, Shaw, Beckett, O'Casey, Synge, Friel, Yeats and, by extension, O'Neill, inherited it. And so has Martin McDonagh. His use of language and dark humor has been best described as a cross between Irish playwright John Millington Synge and our own Sam Shepard.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane was McDonagh's first major play to break stateside, and this is the first time Southern Californian audiences have had the opportunity to see it up close. It's a riveting tale set in a rural cottage called home by Maureen, a 40-year-old woman burdened by a big secret. She lives with her near-invalid mother, Mag, a barking, stubborn beast of a woman. Though filled with animosity for each other, the pair seems trapped in an unhealthy symbiosis. The arrival of Pato, a simple, decent man who spends the night with Maureen, injects new bile into this aging relationship.
Based on this production, directed by Andrew Robinson for South Coast Repertory, the Synge-Shepard comparison seems about right. Like Synge, McDonagh is in love with the language of rural Ireland, its lyricism, idiosyncratic syntax and coarseness. Like Shepard, he has a twisted comic vision: the old woman dumps her urine down the sink out of spite and the daughter tells her mother how great it would be if a stranger clobbered her over the head with an ax.
Dialogue and dark humor aside, though, it's difficult to figure out just what this play is supposed to mean. It's a frightening piece, but not a haunting one. It's difficult to walk away from it with anything more than a gut feeling you've been through something ugly.
That has much to do with the fact that this production is curiously suspense-free and too somber at times, particularly early on. The action turns on a horrible series of actions that should be given more potency by the fact that for much of this play, the audience members have been laughing despite themselves. But there's not nearly enough laughter in this production to generate that tension.
The casting doesn't help. Heather Ehlers is a fine actress but looks 10 years too young to play Maureen. This is a character who needs to look and act a very weary 40 in order to underscore the desperation of having no future aside from the care of a repulsive mother. As Pato, Tim Murphy is also good, but it's difficult to buy that this extremely good-looking man would be so captivated by plain Maureen.
Ann Gee Byrd's Mag is also missing something: she's not nearly loathsome enough. If there is a masterstroke in McDonagh's play, it's that we secretly root for the character who turns out to be the most vicious person in the play. But Byrd's Mag is portrayed more as the doddering fool than the vindictive and cruel old woman terrified at being abandoned. The Sopranos' Livia Soprano would be a gas in this role.
Without that manipulative terror, the most interesting question posed by McDonagh is never truly asked: At what point, if any, should we be allowed to whack those who most deserve to be whacked?
The Beauty Queen of Leenane at South Coast Repertory's Second Stage, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555. Tues.-Fri., 7:45 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 & 7:45 p.m. Through April 9. $26-$45.