Two years ago, when “The Beauty Queen of Leenane" opened in Galway, it gave Martin McDonagh the most startling debut in Irish theater for many years. Now, arriving just ahead of another of his plays, "The Cripple of Inishmaan" at the Public, the same production gives him a triumphant introduction to New York.
Early in this brilliant, dark and very funny play, one character asks another, "What country are you in?" The answer seems obvious. We are in the west of Ireland, a landscape that has been, in the theater and the cinema, loaded with myth and romance.
What makes the play so original, though, is that we are also in many other countries. Without leaving the one room of Francis O'Connor's stark set, we enter a mental terrain in which England and America, Australian soaps and Hollywood fantasies, are conjoined.
At one level, "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" is a relentlessly realistic play. From the first moments, the merciless rain pelting down outside the window tells you that this is not going to be a rustic Irish romance.
McDonagh's vision is almost as pitiless as the rain. His story of an old woman and her 40-year-old daughter locked in mortal combat is harsh and ultimately violent. And the world in which that story is set is certainly not romantic. It is a broken, rundown culture, in which old ways are forgotten and nothing has replaced them but the flotsam and jetsam of television and consumer goods.
If it were merely an exercise in realism, though, the play would probably have little to say to a non-Irish audience. What makes it so universally eloquent is that the realism tips over into a cruel but moving comedy. The dialogue is so superbly strange, the storytelling so skilled, that the whole acquires the speed and fascination of a fairy tale.
This mixture of realism and fable makes ferocious demands of the actors. They have to be both characters and caricatures, believable people who are also figments of the story. In Garry Hynes' fast, rigorous production they are all that and more. The result is a human drama that is neither regal nor beautiful, but extraordinarily compelling nonetheless.
Sometimes you don't even know what you've been craving until the real thing comes along. Watching the Druid Theater Company's production of "The Beauty Queen of Leenane," the stunning new play from the young Anglo-Irish dramatist Martin McDonagh, is like sitting down to a square meal after a long diet of salads and hors d'oeuvres.
Before you know it, your appetite has come alive again, and you begin to feel nourished in ways you had forgotten were possible.
For what McDonagh has provided is something exotic in today's world of self-conscious, style-obsessed theater: a proper, perfectly plotted drama that sets out, above all, to tell a story as convincingly and disarmingly as possible.
"The Beauty Queen of Leenane," which opened Thursday night at the Atlantic Theater Company with the sterling team that first performed it two years ago in Galway, Ireland, is on many levels an old-fashioned, well-made play. Yet it feels more immediate and vital than any new drama in many seasons.
Simply saying what the play is about, at least on the surface, is to invite yawns. A plain middle-aged woman, trapped in a life as a caretaker to her infirm but iron-willed mother in rural Ireland, is offered a last chance at love. Haven't we all been this way before? Doesn't this sound like an eye-glazing variation on the themes so reliably manipulated in the revival of "The Heiress," the stalwart stage adaptation of Henry James' "Washington Square," several seasons ago?
But wait. If "Beauty Queen" is a bucolic cousin to "The Heiress," it also has the more toxic elements found in Grand Guignol films like "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?"
And McDonagh, who is only 27 years old, has a master's hand at building up and subverting expectations in a cat-and-mouse game with the audience, of seeming to follow a conventional formula and then standing it on its head. The play offers the satisfactions of a tautly drawn mystery, yet it is by no means airless. There's plenty of room for ambiguity and for the intricacy of character that actors live for.
Under the finely modulated direction of Garry Hynes, a founder of the Druid Theater Company, the splendid four-member ensemble gives full due to the play's cunning twists and reversals while creating the sense that character is indeed fate.
It's the thorough integration of every element that astonishes here, the meshing of psychology and action. There's not a single hole in the play's structural or emotional logic, and yet it constantly surprises. Even as the plot grips and holds you, the performances engage you on a darker, deeper level.
McDonagh's reputation is already so firmly established in Britain that it has undergone a full cycle of star-making praise and skeptical backlash. Since the debut of "Beauty Queen" in London at the Royal Court Theater (a co-producer of the New York incarnation), the city has seen the two other plays in his "Leenane Trilogy," as well as the popular National Theater production of his "Cripple of Inishman," to be staged here later this month with a largely American cast at the New York Shakespeare Festival.
The excitement is justified, at least on the basis of "Beauty Queen." The work isn't revolutionary; it doesn't open a window onto new experimental vistas. It's intelligent but not intellectual. And while it uses language with wit and precision, it is not, as so many contemporary plays are, about language and its limitations.
Instead, "Beauty Queen" confirms the viability of the well-made play, reminding us at the same time of how difficult the genre is to execute. Compare it to such current examples of the form as "The Last Night of Ballyhoo" or even the compelling revival of Arthur Miller's "View From the Bridge." There's always at least a slight feeling of something imposed from without, of plot as a pegboard for theme.
With "Beauty Queen," on the other hand, nearly everything feels organic, an inevitable outgrowth of character and environment. The play never leaves its single setting, realized with merciless detail by Francis O'Connor, a shabby room in the hilltop country cottage inhabited by old Mag Folan (Anna Manahan) and her embittered daughter, Maureen (Marie Mullen). And though we are told the women do in fact step out of their house from time to time, you feel they never really leave it.
They come to seem as imprisoned as the characters in Sartre's "No Exit." The evening's opening image finds Mag seated, stock-still, before a television set, and she looks as if she has been there for centuries. Ms. Manahan is a large woman, her girth enhanced by O'Connor's scruffy layers of clothing, and Mag seems to fill and anchor the room. It is obvious that if Maureen is ever to escape into a life of her own, she will have to dislodge a mother who appears as immovable as a mountain.
The symbiosis between Ms. Manahan and Ms. Mullen is extraordinary as Mag and Maureen swap insults, demands and recriminations in a circular game of one-upmanship. It is a game that has obviously been going on for many years, and while the resentment behind it is real, so is the devious pleasure each takes from it. McDonagh's spare, brutal dialogue is measured out by these actresses with a refined timing that is both comic and ineffably sinister.
For as the talk continues, spanning topics from Mag's peevish demands for tea and biscuits to local gossip to a murder in Dublin, the subtle shifts in power become dizzying. Who really has the upper hand? Why do references to banal subjects seem so menacing? Who is the victim of whom?
McDonagh is too smart to provide hard and fast answers. When two visitors from the outside world, the Dooley brothers, Ray (Tom Murphy) and Pato (Brian F. O'Byrne), are used as pawns by Mag and Maureen in their continuing war, the rules that govern the women's relationship become more and more complicated. With small flicks of the eyes and resettings of their mouths, both actresses transform, at different moments, from torturer to hostage and back again.
Ms. Mullen, a pale, red-haired woman who can look terminally worn out one instant and electrically vibrant the next, undergoes another metamorphosis. That's when Maureen brings Pato, a local man working in England, home from a party. In the awkward, exquisitely rendered courtship scene between them, Maureen acquires a melting gentleness and openness that is infinitely sad. Neither actress nor playwright, however, allows you to bathe for very long in the sentiments called forth here.
As performers, the men are a match for the women, which is high praise. O'Byrne's Pato is a delicate study in self-consciousness, a shy man pulling himself into postures of virile dignity before he makes sexual overtures or a pretty speech. When he gallantly calls Maureen by the epithet of the play's title, it jolts both lovers in unexpected ways. The silence that follows echoes with the sense that a perilous frontier has been crossed.
As Pato's much younger brother, who serves a plot function out of "Romeo and Juliet," Murphy offers comic relief without ever presenting it as such. His, more than any other character, must embody the provincial society beyond the women's home, and Ray's irritable restlessness is eloquent on the subject.
In all of McDonagh's plays, there's a sense that life is cheap and a piquant awareness of the skull beneath the skin. (His second play in the Leenane trilogy is called "A Skull in Connemara" for literal reasons.) Ms. Hynes accordingly brings a haunting physical dimension to her production, an aura of mortal decay.
It's evident not only in the presentation of the sheer bulk of Mag, but also in the arresting moment when Maureen takes off her coat to reveal a sleeveless dress that is too young for her. Seen later in a pearlescent slip after her night with Pato, Ms. Mullen's Maureen brings to mind the anatomical portraits of Philip Pearlstein, with their sobering suggestions of the way of all flesh.
Correspondingly, seemingly prosaic objects acquire resonant weight in McDonagh's plays, much as they do in the movies of Alfred Hitchcock. Even in reading "Beauty Queen," you can gather how carefully McDonagh sets up and develops the use of such things as a frying pan, a pair of rubber gloves and, most classically, an unopened letter.
It's all the more pleasurable to see how Ms. Hynes, with the invaluable assistance of the lighting designer, Ben Ormerod, summons those objects into our consciousness at different times, miraculously achieving on stage what Hitchcock did with cinematic close-ups. And you may find images from "Beauty Queen" creeping unbidden into your imagination long after you've seen it.
Toward the end of the play, Ray talks about his affection for foreign shows on television. "Who wants to see Ireland on telly?" he asks. "All you have to do is look out your window and see Ireland. And it's bored you'd be." He adds, pantomiming a slow, sweeping gaze, "There goes a calf."
In Murphy's interpretation, it's a pricelessly funny moment. Fortunately, though, Ray's creator understands that the most static picture is often teeming with hidden life, that frustration and boredom create dangerous diversions and that simple lives are often filled with contradiction.
"Beauty Queen" finds the tragic pattern in these things, while acknowledging that the forces beneath it can never be fully explained. In the telling, this play seems as clear as day. When you look back on it, it's the shadows that you can't stop thinking about.
With its move uptown from the Atlantic Theater Co. to Broadway's Walter Kerr Theater, and with a million-dollar advance in tow, Martin McDonagh's "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" has officially upstaged its more anticipated brother, "The Cripple of Inishmaan." Call it the Tara Lipinski of McDonagh's oeuvre.
To continue the metaphor, there is something scrappy and crowd-pleasing about "Beauty Queen," which doesn't shrink from dramatic devices that a more fastidious playwright might scruple to avoid. At a recent performance, a group of elderly women whispered fairly accurate predictions of the tale's turns to one other, then seemed to take extra pleasure when the events came to pass.
The play may be seen as a lurid Irish inversion of "The Glass Menagerie," with Anna Manahan's Mag conniving with a willfulness that Amanda Wingfield would admire to engender precisely the opposite effect: the banishment, rather than the capture, of her plain daughter's lone gentleman caller. But Maureen (Marie Mullen), at 40, well aware of her narrowing chances to escape a life of unwilling servitude, can give as good as she gets. The play's prickly tension derives from this primal battle of wills between a domineering mother and her recalcitrant daughter.
In the second act, as events turn grisly, the play threatens to devolve into a Robert Aldrich movie, an effect perhaps now accented by the grander Kerr auditorium, with its gilt moldings in strange contrast to Francis O'Connor's grimy gray set. But if its plotting is sometimes sensational -- a groan arose from the audience when Mag played her final, desperate card -- the play's execution is not. What saves "Beauty Queen" from turning into a sort of "Whatever Happened to Mother Mag?" is the strength of McDonagh's style -- his language has a distinctive, homely beauty -- and Garry Hynes' sensitive direction.
Manahan's Mag, peering molelike from under a brow creased with concentration on her primitive desires, is a comically nasty figure, with a plaintive purr that cloaks her selfishness in pathos. Squatting in her rocking chair for most of the play, she could write the book on passive-aggressiveness. But when her stealthy torments provoke her daughter's violent ones, the cry of need Manahan lets out is harrowing, the dying sound of a trapped animal. It's a terrific performance.
McDonagh finds humor in the creepiest of corners: The exuberant relish that Mullen brings to Maureen's fantasies of her mother's demise is a strange delight, for example. But Mullen also effectively registers the play's saddest moments, when Maureen's mind closes in upon itself as her hope of happiness recedes.
As Pato Dooley, the man who awakens her dormant affections, Brian F. O'Byrne is as quietly affecting as Tom Murphy is comically ripe as Pato's brother Ray, who moves blithely through this familial morass of rage and recrimination without losing the bounce in his step.