When Irish Eyes Frown

Maureen Folan (Susan Sargeant), the 40-year-old spinster whose two sisters have abandoned her to care for their frail but wolfishly self-centered, aged mother, Mag (C.J. Critt), recounts a trip she took to England in search of work. The Anglos assailed this uneducated Irish woman with racist vitriol she could barely understand. It took another foreigner of a different despised community--a black woman from Trinidad--to explain exactly what those scornful sentiments meant.

If you, as some viewers have, allow the sordid and sensational elements of The Beauty Queen of Leenane--the sadistic outbursts of violence, the snarling bits of death-obsessed humor that kick the contents of the coffin around eagerly--to dominate your evaluation of the play, then you will miss one of its accomplishments: the diamond-clean glare with which it makes us understand how the Irish are "the Negroes," "the coloreds," the you-know-whats of Western Europe.

The easily made comparisons across continents have resulted in intercontinental fame for the play's Anglo-Irish playwright. Martin McDonagh turns 30 this year, but, in the space of the last five years, he has been written about arguably more than any other new playwright in the world. He's certainly been produced--28 countries in 21 different languages--as though the plight of the British-occupied Irish had resonance in all corners of the globe. Optimistic as this supposition is, I suspect it's not the case. Rather, McDonagh has stripped away the sediment of geographical and political specifics to detail how imperialism, cultural subjugation--whatever you want to call it--breeds a kind of aimless cannibalism among the oppressed. He specializes in portraying internalized self-hatred, how it too often winds up being directed at someone who looks and talks like you.

Not everyone is comfortable with McDonagh's boozing, carousing, thieving, betraying Irish characters, even if they do understand the source to which the playwright traces these self-destructive tendencies. Writing in The Village Voice, veteran critic Michael Feingold, unimpressed with McDonagh's celebrity, declares: "That Irish actors are willing to perform his work, compared from which Little Black Sambo is a model of unstereotyped dignity, must be one of the great mysteries of our time." The cross-cultural analogy is explicit and apt; before the Abbey Theatre began to present Irish plays with interwoven threads of nationalism and humanity, the subject of Ireland was dominated by the English theater's perception of its inhabitants as ethnic also-rans, drunken clowns, and sniveling but ineffectual villains. His entire Connemara Trilogy, of which The Beauty Queen of Leenane is the first work, would seem to revive this unfortunate tradition. That's especially true of The Lonesome West, his second entry. In it, a man who murders his father in a drunken rage is forever locked in belligerent symbiosis with his brother, who won't tell in exchange for the whole inheritance and the chance to berate, insult, and sometimes physically attack his brother till their dying days. McDonagh, mind you, plays this nasty little piece mostly for laughs.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane, still his most widely performed script, utilizes its pathetic characters to much the same end. If you can stomach this kind of nihilism, then I believe there is a point, however sawed-off, to McDonagh's cruelty. That pungent smell emanating from his rural Ireland is the scent of souls rotting because they're too angry to claim any kind of English heritage and too ashamed to remember their own. Theatre Three's production of Beauty Queen, despite one insurmountable casting problem, gets this dilemma of dangling above your own country and your own life pretty much right.

Martin McDonagh generally refuses to grant interviews, although he has been quoted that he thinks theater, in general, is boring. This is by way of explaining his adherence to the so-called "well-made play" form, a 19th century phrase that applies to Aristotelian principles that are scandalously un-Shakespearean--no soliloquies, no reveries, no explicitly stated grand themes, no lingering too long on character. Just a beginning, a middle, and an end, linked by a segmented line of clearly motivated action. This pretty much exemplifies T3's Beauty Queen under Nikki Flakks' direction. She doesn't slow down and attempt to soften the truculence of daughter Maureen, who is wont to call Mag a "fekkin' bitch" to her face and inform her of a fantasy where she meets a lover at Mag's funeral. Mama Mag, in turn, trumpets her feebleness, yet compulsively lies and eagerly burns the important correspondences of her caretaker daughter. These are often delivered by blustery Ray (Thom Penn), a short-tempered youth whose brother Pato (James Crawford) has just returned from a job in England, typically insulted, dissatisfied, and restless. Pato loves Maureen, and Mag knows what this means: She'd be fertilizer in a day if her lovesick daughter saw the opportunity. Sargeant and Crawford convey beautiful yearning--for another place, for comfort in someone's arms--that lets this production soar on occasion. Sargeant has streamlined some of her nervous affectations to create a smoothly blended dreamer made of half bitterness and half loneliness, always knowingly intertwined. Crawford doesn't have the leading-man looks that would spoil his working-Joe Irishman, but his lambent sincerity and casual way with prompting a laugh make us willing to follow him wherever he goes.

Some local critics have complained that C.J. Critt, a spring chicken of a performer compared with the plump, old vulture of a role she shuffles through, mugs distractingly as Mag. That's not quite true, at least not at the performance I attended. What Critt does is attempt to compensate for some very lazy old-age makeup by stretching her face into a brow-furrowed, flat-cheeked scowl. Taking this into account, she does not work overmuch to telegraph her emotions, doesn't broaden them any more than a selfish old cuss would. Technically, I had no problem with Critt's performance; indeed, as a radio broadcaster and frequent recorder of audio books, she can control her voice as a formidable theatrical instrument without ever slipping into self- consciousness. But that's a big part of the problem--that authentic, raspy-crone voice coming out of a face with a couple of eyeliner slashes across the cheeks to indicate deep furrows. ("Blend!" I wanted to stand up and shout when I first saw her. "Blend!") Critt does as well as she can, but she seems like an emergency replacement in a role that requires an actress to make you smell that old-folks'-home smell from across the rows. Her presence means this production is hobbled from the instant the lights go up, a real shame considering the anticipation many felt when Theatre Three announced it had snagged Beauty Queen for its current season. Still, Nikki Flakks possesses enough general mastery of the material--an instinct for emphasizing the sadness behind desperate deeds without diluting their shocking power--to rescue Martin McDonagh from his own worst impulses.

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Jimmy Fowler