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A CurtainUp Review
The Lonesome West

Valene: A great parish it is you run, one of them murdered his missus, an axe through her head, the other her mammy, a poker took her brains out.

Father Welsh: It seems like God has no jurisdiction in this town. No jurisdiction at all.

The parish in which God's only interpreter is a melancholy and often drunk priest is the same Godforsaken rural village of Leenane made famous by the award-winning The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Watching The Lonesome West, the last of Martin McDonagh's trilogy (the middle play, A Skull in Connemara, will undoubtedly land on these shores in the not too distant future) will hardly send you racing to your travel agent to book a trip to Leenane. It's a place where it seems to rain all the time with so few amenities and causes for cheer that anyone with any sense will avoid a stopover at all costs.

Nor would you want to spend time with the Connor brothers any more than Maureen Foley and her gross mum Mag. The brothers, like the mother and daughter in the first play, are tied together by iron bonds that seem to have little to do with any genuine familial affection. In fact, so explosive is their antipathy that violence is on standby at all times.

And yet, this is a not to be missed armchair visit to Leenane by way of the Lyceum theater. It may not be on a par with Beauty Queen of Leenane or Cripple of Inishmaan which to my mind is the best of the trio of McDonagh plays seen to date. However, like its forerunners, it showcases the young playwright's ( McDonagh is not yet 30!) ability to cast a humorous and compassionate eye on a bleak and joyless landscape. We may not like these characters, but neither are we likely to forget them.

The plot, if a series of incidents can be so tagged, focuses the prissy Valene (Brian F. O'Byrne ) and his smouldering volcano of a brother Coleman (Maeliosa Stafford) who represent a modern day Cain and Abel. Their past and present grievances are expressed in daily bickering that at times explodes into their wrestling each other to the ground in deadly combat. We first meet them as they return from the funeral of their father who has been hastened to his grave by Coleman's shotgun. This has given Valene the upper hand in their contentious relationship. By agreeing not to report the cause of dad's death he has gotten Coleman to cede rights to the Connor "estate." (How even this bare bones wealth was accumulated is typical of the playwright's tendency to leave many unexplained background details).

The constantly warring brothers exacerbate Father Welsh's (David Ganly) crisis of faith over his ineffectualness. As exasperation drove Maureen to punish her mother by holding her hand to a hot stove, so exasperation over the brothers' unstoppable hostilities leads to a very dramatic act of self-punishment (again involving scalded hands) at the end of act one. Father Welsh's ultimate act of despair is accompanied by an eloquent plea to the brothers to redeem his soul by becoming true brothers leads to a temporary cease fire.. As the parishioners have little patience for the priest's s "gettin' maudlin" so the author also disdains happy or redemptive endings as maudlin. (Those looking for deeper socio-religious meanings in the play may see a metaphor in all this about the diminishing effectiveness of the church in general though my guess is that McDonagh is just bent on having fun with his exaggerated characters).

The four actors, all from the original Druid Theater production, are what give the play its true grit and bite effectiveness. Brian F. O'Byrne, who was so touching as Maureen's last chance at love in Leenane, is a marvel of fussy old-maidishness. To watch him mark his little religious statuettes with the same V that also screams out his ownership of practically everything else in this ugly and unhomelike domicile is worth the price of admission. Maeliosa Stafford matches O'Byrne's bravura performance as the messy, layabout Coleman, fully capturing the sense of violence always ready to go from a simmer to a dangerous boil. David Ganly is touching as the priest; so is Dawn Bradfield as the not as tough as she seems teenager who is the village carrier of liquor and mail.

Don't worry about the accents . If you're not Irish, you may miss a word or even a line at the outset but the physical performances are so terrific that some of the scenes would work even if you didn't understand a word.

This production, like Leenane, again owes a great debt to the direction of Garry Hynes, the artistic director of the Druid Theater, and Francis O'Connor's grunge incarnate set. In a big city, this could be the attached twin unit of the one occupied by Leenane's Maureen and Mag Foley. The Lonesome West set is a little more elaborate in that the jagged rear wall lifts up temporarily at the beginning of the second act for the play's most moving scene -- Girleen trying to comfort the distraught priest as he sits on a bench at the lake where one of his parishioners drowned himself. Tharon Musser's lighting is just so and the prolific composer Paddy Cunneen has composed incidental music in keeping with the dourness of the setting.

WhileThe Lonesome West stands sufficiently on its own feet to allow you to enjoy it without having seen Leenane, seeing more than one McDonagh work contributes to a better understanding of all the accolades heaped on his work. I appreciated Leenane more after seeing Inishmaan even though it was not part of this trilogy. Having seen all three plays presented here to date also helped me to overlook the pat overuse of Gaelic shtick reminiscent of pairs of classic opposites-locked-in-proximity ranging from Beckett's tramps to Simon's The Odd Couple. (the brothers are actually referred to as the "kings of odd" at one point in the play -- as his title seems to slyly pay tribute to Sam True West Shepard who shares his penchant for messy food fights ). If McDonagh, who has admitted to preferring movies over the theater, doesn't desert stage for screen, perhaps we'll have a chance to see his gift for humor and language applied to another and flawless play or group of plays. The theater certainly needs to hear from fresh young voices from all over the world.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane
Cripple of Inishmaan

By Martin McDonagh
Directed by Garry Hynes
With Dawn Bradfield, David Ganly, Brian F. O'Byrne, Maeliosa Stafford
Settings and costumes: Francis O'Connor
Lighting: Tharon Musser
Music: Paddy Cunneen
Sound: Paul Arditti
Special effects: Gregory Meeh
Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St., (212/ 239-6200)
Performances from 4/19/99; opens 4/27/999
Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes with intermission
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 4/24 performance

©Copyright 2001, Elyse Sommer.
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