They grow up ugly, twisted and mean in playwright Martin McDonagh's anything-but-romanticized County Galway in Ireland. Sons kill fathers. Priests wrestle with soul-devastating guilt. One brother sneaks urine into another's lager. The Lonesome West, receiving its West Coast premiere at South Coast Repertory (SCR), is the third play in McDonagh's Leename Trilogy, named after the hardscrabble town of bogs and booze in Galway. And much like The Beauty Queen of Leenane, which SCR produced last year, The Lonesome West is a bleak, depressing play populated by a handful of charmingly miserable, intensely frustrated and downright hilarious characters. And like its predecessor, this play rarely ventures beneath the surface.
McDonagh, not much older than 30, is the most celebrated Irish playwright of the past five years. But he has yet to write a great play. He's written a handful of quite enjoyable, funny and shocking plays, but like a topless dancer's vacuous eyes, there isn't a whole lot going on inside.
McDonagh doesn't seem overly concerned with why things are the way they are. They just are. And while that can make for a highly entertaining experience, it can also leave you wishing for something just a bit weightier.
In The Lonesome West, two poteen-drinking, foul-mouthed brothers—Coleman (an excellently understated Paul O'Brien, who threatens to erupt with volcanic fervor) and Valene (an equally measured Rod McLachlan)—have recently laid their father to rest. The house is now theirs, but rarely has a home stood atop such a fractured foundation. Although each brother seems well past 40, they act as if they're 10-year-olds. They're petty, mean-spirited, selfish, envious and possessed of a genuinely sick sibling rivalry.
But McDonagh's canvas is reserved for only the broadest strokes; at no point do you understand why these two still live at home, why they haven't killed each other or why they enjoy such a wicked symbiosis.
Two other characters drift onto this battleground: Father Welsh (an impeccable J. Todd Adams), an alcoholic priest with serious doubts about Catholicism and his ability to save the perverse souls drifting across this Irish backwater, and Girleen (a keenly aching Amy Chaffee), the local poteen salesperson. There's plenty of incendiary conversation, some great one-liners, and enough genuinely twisted humor and shocking details to keep the viewer interested —helped in great measure by director Martin Benson's well-orchestrated production. But for the most part, it plays like a rural version of Pulp Fiction. You can't take your eyes away, but you also can't shake the feeling that you're not seeing much other than what's obvious.
That's a criticism that many have leveled at McDonagh, but it's possible he's simply not interested in supplying reasons for these people's desperate lives—they just are. In most of his plays, there are many references to American pop culture. The brothers watch Hill Street Blues and Alias Smith and Jones; they are part of the global community in the most vacuous sense. There's no real sense of Irish heritage—none of the mysticism and magic you find in plays by fellow Irish writer Brian Friel. This isn't the Ireland of Van Morrison; it's the Ireland of a Third World nation dominated and oppressed by one of the most brutal bullies on the block. (The play is set in the mid-1990s, right about the time the Republic of Ireland's economy began its turnaround.) And none of McDonagh's characters seems preoccupied with getting out of their bleak conditions. Again, they've settled for a lonely and petty existence, seemingly content with the small, wicked details of their tiny lives. In America, these characters would be living in trailer parks and cooking up speed in the bathtub; in Ireland, they live for their poteen and crisps. In both cases, they're just hanging on in not-so-quiet desperation.
While The Lonesome West ends with an empathetic nod at some hope of reconciliation between these two brothers, nothing in McDonagh's play suggests that long-term happiness is really possible, at least not for these characters. They're just too lived-in. And in that sense, McDonagh, criticized in some quarters for not writing well-rounded, deep, "real-life" characters, may actually be more firmly based in reality than most working playwrights.
The Lonesome West 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 15. $18-$47.