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A CurtainUp Review
The Beauty Queen of Leenane
By Charles Wright
Druid and Mullen are back in New York with Beauty Queen, this time in Brooklyn; but Mullen now plays the old mother rather than her daughter. (Anna Manahan, the mother of the original, died in 2009.) This engrossing revival, which commemorates the twentieth anniversary of the play's 1996 premiere, began in Galway. Before coming to Brooklyn, the current tour took in various Irish cities and Los Angeles. It's scheduled for Boston, Pittsburgh, Ann Arbor, and Hong Kong in the weeks ahead.
Set in a desolate hamlet in Connemara, County Galway, Beauty Queen concerns Maureen Folan (Aisling O'Sullivan), a sexually inexperienced woman on the dark side of 40. She's been left behind by two married sisters to look after their selfish, hypochondriac mother, Mag (Mullen).
The time is contemporary, but there are no signs of the Celtic Tiger affluence of the recent real-estate bubble. The Leenane of the Folans and their neighbors — brothers Ray (Aaron Monaghan) and Pato (Marty Rea) — is squalid and low on hope.
Maureen's aim is to shed the virginity she finds burdensome and escape her mother's tyranny. Opportunity arrives — or so she hopes — in the appealing person of Pato, who's on home-leave from a long-term construction gig in London.
Mag has no intention of letting a good caregiver out of her grasp. Since mother and daughter are similarly iron-willed, their ensuing struggle is strategic, intense, and bloody.
McDonagh's writing is filled with suspense and nail-biting moments; and this excellent four-member cast makes good use of the theatrical zigs and zags he gives them. At several points during the performance under review, audience members gasped in surprise and made other, presumably inadvertent, uneasy sounds.
At first glance, the new Beauty Queen resembles the original. Hynes' direction isn't markedly different from what she did in the Broadway version. The music, ominous and heavy with broody cello, is again by Paddy Cunneen. The costumes, designed by Frances O'Connor, are familiar (especially Mag's tattered bathrobe); and O'Connor's scenic design is consistent with the set for the previous production.
The Folans' dilapidated house, with its water-damaged walls and naked light bulb, is recognizably arranged. Mag's rocking chair is downstage vis-a-vis a television, The kitchen sink, where she surreptitiously empties her chamber pot every morning to avoid taking the contents out to the privy, is upstage — and the turf-burning stove (an essential element of the play's most memorable scene) is nearby.
What's on view at BAM's capacious Harvey Theater, however, is considerably larger in scale than the compact staging of the 1998 production. The size of the playing area permits — and, perhaps, encourages — the performers to take on a collective style that's broader, more comedic, and altogether less intense than in the earlier version. And thanks to O'Sullivan's relatively light touch (at least as compared with the style of her predecessor, Mullen), it's all less Grand Guignol than before. In the play's most startling moment, O'Sullivan is literally less heavy-handed than Mullen was in the scene. (That's a much as one can say without a spoiler alert.)
Even with O'Sullivan's less harrowing enactment of that alarming high point in this creepy chronicle of domestic violence, the war between the Folan women is likely to find a prominent place among audiences' theatergoing memories. These actors (and director Hynes) understand McDonagh's kind of writing and know how to inhabit his characters with the utmost conviction. Most of all, they're adept at keeping spectators on the edge of their seats and sending them out of the theater with that delicious sense of relief that arrives when the lights come up at the end of top-notch horror movies and plays.
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The Beauty Queen of Leenane
By Martin McDonagh
Director: Garry Hynes
Cast: Aaron Monaghan (Ray Dooley); Marie Mullen (Mag Folan); Marty Rea (Pato Dolley); Aisling O'Sullivan (Maureen Folan)
Set Designer: Francis O'Connor
Lighting Designer: James F. Ingalls
Sound Designer: Greg Clarke
Composer: Paddy Cunneen
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission
Presented by Druid, Galway, Ireland (Garry Hynes, Artistic Director)
Brooklyn Academy of Music, Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street
>From 1/11/17; opened 1/14/17; closing 2/5/17
Reviewed by Charles Wright at January 13th press performance
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