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The Lonesome West (04/27/1999 - 06/13/1999)


New York Daily News: "A Great Play by the Irish"

Cain and Abel. Tom and Jerry. The tramps, Didi and Gogo, in Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot."

Coleman and Valene Connor, the warring brothers of Martin McDonagh's new play, recall, at various times, these famous double acts. And they achieve the same kind of mythic status.

"The Lonesome West" comes from the team of McDonagh and director Garry Hynes that had such a triumph last year with "The Beauty Queen of Leenane."

It has the same fusion of hilarity and cruelty, only more so. It is both the funniest play on Broadway and one of the darkest.

The comedy and the agony come from the same source. For all his surreal comic exaggerations, McDonagh is an acute social observer.

What he observes here is the collapse of Catholicism in Ireland. The majesty of the Church is now reduced to the ineffectual, alcoholic priest, Father Welsh (played by David Ganly), who remarks that "God has no jurisdiction in this town."

His failure is measured in murders and suicides. Coleman has killed his father, making him the third murderer in Leenane. The local policeman kills himself.

And what makes Coleman and Valene so wildly funny is their complete lack of moral perspective. While tragedies are unfolding around them, they fight obsessively about liquor and potato chips, stoves and statuettes.

They are, in the stunning performances of Maeliosa Stafford and Brian F. O'Byrne, overgrown children caught between mutual loathing and a complete dependence on each other.

Outside their little universe of spite, there are other kinds of loneliness. The fierce little schoolgirl Girleen (Dawn Bradfield) pines for Father Welsh. He, in turn, stakes all the love and idealism he has left on a last desperate attempt to save the souls of Coleman and Valene.

The direction fluid, confident and completely coherent is even more impressive than the work that won Hynes last year's Tony.

And the acting has all the power and precision that made "Beauty Queen" so memorable. O'Byrne's feat in giving a miserable specimen like Valene such fascination is particularly extraordinary.

He and the others do what the best theater does. They create a world that in real life would be unbearable but that is, onstage, irresistible.

New York Daily News

New York Post: "'West'-Ward, Ho!"

The world of Martin McDonagh is a place without mercy or compassion. The family is a locus of long and secret cruelty. Any stabs at affection or kindness are doomed to wither fruitlessly.

In ''The Lonesome West,'' a tragicomedy of great power that opened last night at the Lyceum Theatre, the author of ''The Beauty Queen of Leenane'' brings us the final installment in his trilogy set in Ireland's County Galway.

All three plays take place in a corner of hell called Leenane, a rainy terrain where unredeemed and unredeemable beings have at each other with a homicidal fury that can arise from the killing of a family member or the choice of a brand of potato chips.

The savagery of McDonagh's clashing mastodons is relieved only by incessant lightning flashes of sadistic or surreal humor.

A pair of brothers provides the central family dynamic of ''The Lonesome West,'' just as a mother and daughter did in ''Beauty Queen.'' Coleman and Valene dwell in a plain farmhouse that, in Francis O'Connor's impressive set, opens up into a wild, howling universe above - it's Wuthering Heights with plastic chairs.

Once again, McDonagh has had the good fortune to have his piece directed by Garry Hynes, a genius at creating mood and pace. Hynes has again fashioned a quartet of players into a seamless ensemble both terrifying and hilarious.

Living together for too long in a battling symbiosis has exaggerated the antithetical qualities of the brothers. As played with malevolent exuberance by Brian O'Byrne, in a truly amazing performance, Valene is a fussy, greedy, anal-retentive, almost effeminate collector of cheap religious figurines. He marks all his possessions, including a brand-new red stove, with a black ''V.''

His brother Coleman has become Valene's opposite, a lazy, messy, grubbing malcontent. In Maeliosa Stafford's excellent hands, Coleman has a chilling, uneasy quality, as though he's capable of anything.

As the play begins, they've just come back from the funeral of their father. Coleman turns out to have killed his own father over a remark about Coleman's hair. Val agreed to hush it up if Coleman signed over his rights to everything in the house.

Patricide and blackmail - it's all in a day's work for these amoral babies, these ''kings of odd,'' as they're called.

A young priest tries to bring moral order to it all. Droopy, alcoholic Father Welsh is, with his constant crises of faith, the laughingstock of Leenane.

The poor guy, slumped at the purple table, says he never drank until he came to this parish. Large and sagging, David Ganly makes woebegone Welsh a deeply touching figure, full of flaws and foolish schemes to save the Connors' souls.

First, he sacrificially scalds himself, and then he makes a weird, misbegotten bargain with God. I'd be surprised to learn McDonagh's any kind of believer, but in Father Welsh he's created the saddest clerical searcher for grace since the priests of Graham Greene and George Bernanos.

A cheerful, welcome female presence is afforded by Dawn Bradfield as Girleen, a pretty and pert local lass of 17 who drops by to sell her dad's home-brewed ''poteen'' to the Connors. Amid all the lunacy and melancholy, she's a no-nonsense shaft of sunlight.

Girleen has a fierce, teasing crush on Welsh, who barely notices. The two have a wonderful scene together sitting at a jetty on a rainy night and discussing, with a Chekhovian delicacy, life, death, happiness and Guinness.

Welsh writes the brothers a letter pleading with them to try love, confession, forgiveness and ''stepping back'' from anger. But the priest's agenda is savagely parodied by the brothers, who go through a catalog of old offenses, ostensibly in a spirit of forgiveness - but get angrier and angrier, their conduct more and more savage, as they go.

McDonagh has written a strong and scary play, and Garry Hynes has given it a perfect production.

New York Post

New York Times: "Another Tempestuous Night in Leenane (Sure, It's Not a Morn in Spring)"

Ah, the sounds of the Irish countryside: the patter of rain, the lowing of cattle, the gentle hiss of scalding human flesh. Welcome back to Leenane, that quaint rural town where the skies are always gray, the people are always angry, and domestic homicide and mutilation are the No. 1 recreational activities.

It is a place where, according to the local priest, he would ''have to have killed half me . . . relatives'' to fit in. This being Leenane, or at least Leenane as envisioned by the young playwright Martin McDonagh in his formulaic comic drama ''The Lonesome West,'' the good father modifies ''relatives'' with an adjective that, even in western Irish dialect, is unprintable here. Leenane inspires people to strong and surly language.

Broadway audiences were first introduced to this gleefully macabre landscape only last season, when Mr. McDonagh's gripping ''Beauty Queen of Leenane,'' with its original Irish cast, director and production team, came to the Walter Kerr Theater to reap Tony awards for three of its actors and for its director, Garry Hynes.

That production shut down last month (to make way for another Irish play, Conor McPherson's ''Weir''). And now, before we've had a chance to mourn it properly, here is ''The Lonesome West,'' which opened last night at the Lyceum Theater, with Ms. Hynes again directing, and which suggests ''Beauty Queen'' as reinterpreted by Beavis and Butt-head.

Bringing in ''West'' with such haste was not a great idea. Part of a trilogy of Leenane plays by Mr. McDonagh (''A Skull in Connemara'' is the third), the work offers many of the contempt-making aspects of familiarity and few of the comforts. Seen in repertory with its sibling plays, as it was at the Druid Theater in Galway, where it originated, and at the Royal Court in London, ''West'' might register as part of an enriching marathon experience.

On its own, however, with the memory of ''Beauty Queen'' still warm, comparisons are not in its favor. It is directed and acted with comic precision and flair, and it is occasionally quite funny. But it lacks the narrative intricacy of ''Beauty Queen'' and the attendant suspense and psychological mystery. What you see at the start is what you get for the rest of the evening, and it all starts to seem as repetitive as a Tom and Jerry cartoon.

A feeling of deja vu descends as soon as you set eyes on Francis O'Connor's set, which looks a lot like the shabby, claustrophobic living room-kitchen in which ''Beauty Queen'' took place. Whereas ''Beauty Queen'' was a four-character work that portrayed a mother and her middle-aged daughter locked in hostile interdependence, ''West'' is a four-character work that portrays two middle-aged brothers locked in hostile interdependence.

Those are the O'Connors, Coleman (Maeliosa Stafford) and Valene (Brian F. O'Byrne), who have just buried their father when the play begins. Dad, it seems, was blasted with a shotgun by Coleman, an occurrence officially described as an accident, although no one seems to believe that except for Father Welsh (David Ganly), the naive young parish priest who has understandably developed a powerful thirst for alcohol.

The violent deaths that are central to ''Beauty Queen'' and ''Skull'' are alluded to here, just as references to some mayhem around the O'Connor brothers, involving the fatal severing of a dog's ears, worked their way into ''Beauty Queen.'' But for body count ''West'' handily tops the trilogy, with two deaths by drowning in addition to the plot-propelling patricide. There is also a rather grisly mortification of the flesh that concludes the first act and brings to mind a similar scene in ''Beauty Queen.''

The small-town despair, restlessness and plain old boredom that inspire such behavior are again conjured by Mr. McDonagh, though in such broad terms that it rarely arouses emotions other than mild laughter. It seems clear that the dramatist was aspiring, as in ''Beauty Queen,'' to a more nebulous mixture of elements. The scene-setting music by Paddy Cunneen is like a Gaelic instrumental answer to ''Gloomy Sunday.''

The play features several lovely tragicomic speeches for Welsh, played with an affecting blend of ingenuousness and bleakness by the strapping Mr. Ganly, that suggest vernacular variations on Hamlet's suicide soliloquy. And there's a wryly bittersweet discussion of ghosts by Welsh and Girleen Kelleher (Dawn Bradfield), a comely, foul-mouthed local lass with a crush on the priest.

Mostly, however, the show is devoted to the ways in which Coleman and Valene, who exist in a moldy state of suspended adolescence, needle each other with endless insults and recriminations, which every so often degenerate into fisticuffs, with the occasional appearance of a knife or firearm. Mr. O'Byrne, who was wonderful as the awkward suitor in ''Beauty Queen,'' and the excellent Mr. Stafford have created a mutually dependent, festering yin and yang relationship not unlike that of Laurel and Hardy or Oscar and Felix in ''The Odd Couple.''

Mr. O'Byrne's Valene, who controls the family purse strings for reasons that quickly become apparent, is all goony, exaggerated primness as he struts through the house marking his possessions with giant V's and arranging his collection of figures of saints. Dressed by Mr. O'Connor in undersize clothes that bring out the ungainliness of his height and leanness, he ingeniously folds and unfolds his limbs as though they were collapsible telescopes.

Mr. Stafford, who is the doughy circle to Mr. O'Byrne's ruler-straight line, is gruffer and more self-contained and makes efficient use of a more deliberately limited body language. Ms. Hynes exploits these geometric differences with some astute physical comedy. And the actors do generate a sense of siblings to whom animosity and affection are the same thing.

The problem is that this is implicit from the first sight of the brothers, and there is minimal room for development and none for real revelation. By the time Valene and Coleman engage in a competitive round of confessions of past sins, the whole thing has started to feel like an old ''I Love Lucy'' episode in Irish Gothic drag. One can't help thinking of Sam Shepard's slyer, more engagingly sustained take on battling brothers in a play with a similar title, ''True West.''

The fey, barbaric charm of the O'Connors' eccentricities, as well as those of Leenane itself, cumulatively reach a level of self-parody that evokes the satiric skit in the revue ''Forbidden Broadway,'' which presents ''Beauty Queen'' as a lugubrious Punch and Judy show. ''How are things in Irish drama?'' is the musical question (set to the tune of ''How Are Things in Gloccamora?'') asked in that sketch.

Along with Mr. McPherson, Mr. McDonagh has already made a convincing argument that Irish drama is quite healthy, thank you. Even in ''The Lonesome West'' there is evidence of an exhilaratingly original voice. It has just gone hoarse in this outing. Repetition and strain can do that.

New York Times

Variety: "The Lonesome West"

The rain comes down in sheets, the grime is thick on the walls, the acrimony in the squalid room is even thicker, and the loneliness is palpable. Sound familiar? We're back in the unlovely Irish backwater that served as a bleak backdrop for last season's sleeper hit "The Beauty Queen of Leenane," a compellingly lurid comedy-drama that announced the arrival of a distinctive new Anglo-Irish playwright, Martin McDonagh.

A year has now passed, and McDonagh's "The Lonesome West," the third play in his Leenane trilogy ("Beauty Queen" was the first), has also made the unlikely trek from the small Druid Theater in Galway, Ireland, to Broadway, by way of London's Royal Court. And while the production, directed by Tony-winning "Beauty Queen" helmer Garry Hynes, is marked by the same fastidious affection for McDonagh's rhythmic, colorful language and bizarre comic characterizations, the play itself is rather small beer, to put it in terms the play's booze-obsessed characters would appreciate. A more grotesque, gender-switched variation on themes and situations not unlike those of "Beauty Queen," "The Lonesome West" strains the limits of one's ability to find squalor entertaining.

While "Beauty Queen" depicted the corrosive emotional combat between a mother and daughter, the two characters locked in a protracted battle of wills in this case are brothers Coleman and Valene Connor, played respectively by Maeliosa Stafford and Brian F. O'Byrne (in a role vastly different from his tender Tony-nominated turn in "Beauty Queen").

O'Byrne's Valene has the pale moon face of a sickly child, and his behavior indicates some kind of arrested development. His face is forever contorted in a grimace of sneering malice or abject fear, while his actions have a rodent-like furtiveness. The obsessions that manage to fill his days include an ever-expanding collection of tacky plaster and china saints and subscriptions to a variety of the lower-brow women's magazines. His diet consists of vodka and a brand of potato chips that, like much else in his life, seems to be chosen expressly to annoy his brother Coleman.

The cynical, cooler Coleman is more recognizably human, although having shot and killed their father would have to be seen as a larger demerit than Valene's quirky pettiness (giant black V's are scrawled on virtually everything in the room, indicating Valene's ownership). The play opens on the day of the late patriarch's funeral, as the local priest Father Welsh (David Ganly) joins Valene and Coleman in their glum, gray sitting room-cum-kitchen for a wee drink from Valene's carefully secreted stash.

Although the brothers have just buried their dad, it's Father Welsh who's in need of comfort. He's riddled with self-doubts after the violent death of yet another of his parishioners (there are allusions to the murder in "Beauty Queen" and "A Skull in Connemara," the second Leenane play). Coleman comforts him, in blackly comic terms that typify McDonagh's acrid humor: "You're a bit too weedy and you're a terror for the drink and you have doubts about Catholicism. Apart from that you're a fine priest. Number one you don't go about abusing 5-year-olds, so, sure, doesn't that give you a head start over half the priests in Ireland?"

Two more inhabitants of Leenane will be dead by their own hand before "The Lonesome West" ends, but the play never works up the harrowing dramatic force that "Beauty Queen" managed to achieve, despite that play's equal doses of savage comedy. In "The Lonesome West" McDonagh spends so much time serving up his characters' subhuman behavior that their humanity gets utterly lost. And the vile business that defines them often seems to be more concocted for our delectation than truthfully observed. Even Father Welsh, the play's most sympathetic character, is subjected to such intense and frequently amusing scorn by the brothers (and by extension the playwright) that it's hard to be moved by his miserable fate.

Because Valene and Coleman never engage our sympathy the way Maureen and her repulsive but desperately needy mother did in "Beauty Queen," the revelations that lead to the play's violent climax have little resonance. The primal mix of love and hate and need brought blisteringly to life in "Beauty Queen" is more shallowly and perfunctorily conceived here. (And the most wounding discovery -- that Valene was responsible for Coleman missing his one chance at love -- is the exact same tragedy on which the previous play turned, though here it's more preposterously comic than wrenching.) Eventually, as the brothers' increasingly violent acts of retribution drive the plot forward, the play begins to resemble a "Road Runner" cartoon crossed with Sam Shepard's "True West," also a wild west comedy about fraternal angst. Funny, yes, but eventually monotonous.

Whatever the play's inherent weaknesses, Hynes' production is impeccably choreographed and played -- the performers clearly relish the rich textures of McDonagh's language. Byrne has the showiest part and makes a memorably distasteful figure of the resentful Valene. Stafford's Coleman is a fine and subtle piece of work, with his lazy air of nonchalance bursting into sudden, methodical explosions of violence. Ganly has a studied, mournful charm as the forever-doubting Father Welsh, but he doesn't quite bring the depth of feeling to the role that would give the play enough emotional ballast to balance the brothers' grotesquerie. The play's fourth character, the father's secret admirer Girleen, is played with affecting simplicity by Dawn Bradfield.

There is also fine work from the play's designers, but it only accents a sense of deja vu -- Francis O'Connor's set could be the very one from "Beauty Queen." In the end this second visit to Leenane compares unfavorably to the more rewarding first. And it's not likely to leave Broadway audiences hungering for a third.


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