"Better 50 enemies outside the house than one within," says an old Irish proverb. In the tiny, moldy Connemara cottage that's the setting for Martin McDonagh's tense 1996 drama The Beauty Queen of Leenane, both residents have one sworn enemy — each other.
Now running at Kitchen Dog Theater in a muted production directed by Cameron Cobb, the play offers a peek into the wretched lives of a mother and daughter. The women are mired in misery. Maureen (Karen Parrish) is an angry 40-year-old virgin stuck caring for 70-year-old Mag (Nancy Sherrard). The old lady pretends to suffer from a variety of ailments as a ploy to keep her daughter near at hand. When Mag isn't demanding bowls of porridge and cups of a nutritional drink called Complan, she's ordering Maureen to turn the radio on or off, complaining she's bought the wrong brand of cookies or just generally being a demanding bitch. Maureen responds to the bullying with threats to send Mag to an old folks' home. Or maybe she'll leave the door unlocked in case some wandering strangler happens by. "I s'pose now you'll never be dyin'," grouses Maureen, "hangin' on forever just to spite me."
McDonagh — who also makes films, including In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths — doesn't try to be coy about what will happen to these two. He plants three huge clues at the top of Act One. The game then becomes guessing who'll do what to whom and how. McDonagh's crafty enough to keep our loyalties shifting right up to the big reveal. One minute we're rooting for Maureen; a scene later, we're feeling a twinge of empathy for sad old Mag.
With its dark wit, hints of violence (and then actual violence) and bleak atmosphere, The Beauty Queen of Leenane is McDonagh's update on Beckett's Endgame. "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness," says a character in the Beckett play, and that's true of the McDonagh piece, too. It has plenty of moments of raw hilarity. Usually. Just not at Kitchen Dog. Not enough, anyway.
Director Cobb, either by design or mistake, has missed many of the script's opportunities for comedy, leaving the emphasis heavy on the drear. Only actor Drew Wall, playing a twitchy young neighbor charged with delivering an important message, lightens the emotional load. His scenes are charged with funny bursts of energy as he bounces around the filthy room searching for something to eat. His character, Ray Dooley, is itching to escape the muddy bogs of rural Ireland, a place where, he says, "if you kick a cow, someone holds a grudge for 20 years." His older brother Pato (Scott Latham in an endearing performance) is soon to depart for a construction job in America. Ray would be happy to get as far as Manchester.
Pato, sweet and not too bright, becomes a symbol of hope for lonely Maureen after they hook up one magical night. But when Ray appears at the door with that important letter from Pato, you know there will be little chance of a happy ending.
Hitchcock said of suspense that there is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it. Pato's letter in Ray's hand — that's the play's ticking bomb. In other productions, particularly a fine one a few years back at Collin College, the audience was edge-of-their-seats anxious about that letter. If the right person gets the letter, all's well; in the wrong hands, it's certain disaster. That's how McDonagh, a master manipulator, devised it.
But that's not how it goes at Kitchen Dog, where the series of actions in the pivotal letter scene are rushed and any chance of sustained suspense is lost. And without that, we're cheated of a fine bit of built-in theatricality and the play's second best visual jolt.
Also lost in this production are huge chunks of dialogue, swallowed up by thick Irish accents. Speed-talking in that brogue, Parrish and Sherrard also speak too softly. The first 20 minutes on opening night were inaudible. ("They need supertitles, like at the opera," whispered one confused patron. And this in an intimate theater seating only 125.)
Though she's a fine actress, especially with comedy, Sherrard's not quite right as Mag. The character's written as a monster. Slopping around in layers of flannel nightgowns, she's a dragon in sponge rollers. When she sneakily empties her slop bucket into the kitchen sink, on top of dirty dishes, you should almost smell the pong of her hot pee. But Sherrard's Mag is just too likable to make us hate her, even when she's making such nasty moves. Her eyes still twinkle behind the smudgy glasses. Instead of monstrous, she only seems misunderstood.