"The Beauty Queen of Leenane "

By Martin McDonagh
Directed by Eric Engel
Sugan Theatre
Boston Center for the Arts,  through November 2000.

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

The Súgán production od  "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" transformed the BCA Theatre.  The side banks of seats in the 150 set theatre were brought forward on risers, framing Susan Zeeman Rogers's set and forcing the audience into intimacy with every detail of the impoverished lives within it: ancient black peat buring stove, cracked linolium, rickety table, hideous green printed rocker cushion with the crackly old yellowed foam leaking out one corner. It was with trepidation that I took my seat in the front row.  At the Druid in Galway McDonagh's trilogy was safely tucked behind a proscenium arch, and I was seated well back in the balcony, and even then the monsterous goings-on were too close for comfort.  Avalanches of raucus laughter rolled over me, some of them sweeping me along, and I felt -- here are characters  with no sense of proportion whatsoever, and a whole theatre full of people who think that's funny!

Sugan's  Beauty Queen was harrowing, but not in the Druid's way. The laughs were sparse, and not the sort one has to feel guity for joining. Director Eric Engel and his cast went for a quieter, more insidious inhumanity: Mary Klug's Mag, who rocks away in a cheap, out-at-the-elbow chartreuse sweater (no fancy Aran handknit here), she's soft-edged enough to be lovable without betraying her character,

 The acting, however, is unexceptionable. In his hooded red sweatshirt and leather (leathereen?) jacket, Matthew Ellis is a childish, irresponsible, not unsympathetic Ray who yearns for the swingball Maureen confiscated 10 years earlier and can't decide whether his favorite biscuit is Kimberleys or Jaffa Cakes or Wagon Wheels. Derry Woodhouse's Pato is just too good to be truea big, shy, awkward lug (think David Schwimmer) with an honest way about him and an authentic accent (the actor's from Limerick). Susanne Nitter, last seen in Boston as Ladies Macbeth and Macduff at the Publick back in July, is a sight too attractive (this Maureen would have every playboy in the western world after her) and doesn't always reflect the years she's taken care of Mag, but otherwise she's superb, whether arching her eyebrows ominously or scratching an ear self-consciously and tugging at her slip; together she and Woodhouse make the missed connection between Maureen and Pato truly painful. As for embodying the ambiguity that Martin McDonagh is all about.Then again, three of McDonagh's plays have premiered in Galway City, so he's not without honor in his adopted land. And my friend Mairéad (from Cois Fhairrge, along the Galway coast) gave a thumbs-up to his The Cripple of Inishmaan when the American Repertory Theatre did it in May of last year. As black as it seems on the page, The Beauty Queen of Leenane takes on some color -- and heart -- in a really good production, which is what it gets from Súgán Theatre Company in its current Boston debut.

 The Beauty Queen of Leenane is part of a "Connemara" trilogy, with The Skull of Connemara and The Lonesome West, that's set in or near Líonán, at the mouth of Killary Harbor, in Galway's wild west, the same picturesque village where John B. Keane's play The Field (and the 1989 Jim Sheridan film) takes place. (The Cripple of Inishmaan is part of a projected Aran Islands trilogy.) The community is the same throughout, so that in any one play there are liberal allusions to the people of the other two, McDonagh dropping tantalizing hints that he never quite resolves.

 All of Beauty Queen takes place in the home of "stout, frail" 70-year-old Mag Folan and her "plain, slim" -- and virginal -- 40-year-old daughter Maureen, who clearly have been at each other's throats for ages, Mag whining, nagging, and complaining (lumps in her Complan, no sugar in her tea), Maureen aching for a little appreciation, not to mention a life of her own. A sending-off party for Pato Dooley's back-to-America uncle brings Pato and Maureen together for a night of passion, if not sex; and when Pato decides for America himself, he asks Maureen to come with him. Mag, in her usual underhanded way, throws a spanner into their plans (why should her daughter be happy?), whereupon the hot oil and the poker are brought out.

 Black comedy has to be sophisticated; McDonagh sometimes settles for sophomoric. I'd sooner expect to see a photo of John and Robert Kennedy and a framed copy of that old chestnut "May you be half an hour in Heaven afore the Devil knows you're dead" in Southie than in 1990-ish Galway. And in the first of the play's nine scenes, when Mag and Maureen go on about how the English stole Ireland and how the only work is in London or America, they're talking to the audience, not each other. The playwright himself encourages us to laugh at his characters rather than see ourselves in them: Mag is mean, mean, mean; Maureen's had a nervous breakdown; Pato's younger brother Ray hardly acts his 20 years; and Pato himself has no more sense than to entrust Ray with the crucial letter to Maureen.