Tuesday, January 31, 2017

"The Beauty Queen of Leenane" - Devastatingly Brilliant

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

There's a moment in Martin McDonagh's pitch-black comedy The Beauty Queen of Leenane where the entire audience gasps over a certain character's actions. It's a sound not of horror or pain, but rather of anger and disgust over what they see is about to happen; as well as their inability to do anything about it. Such is the power of this completely shattering work, which offers a look at the dark side of family relationships. The work performed to absolute perfection by The Druid Theater Company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

In County Galway, Ireland, the aging Mag Folan (Marie Mullen) lives with her daughter Maureen (Aisling O'Sullivan) in the small town of Leenane. The two have a tense and caustic relationship, that has grown more combative over time. With her two sisters married and gone, Maureen has long since become Mag's de facto caregiver. Mag's daily wants in terms of tea, food, listening to the radio or watching the television - all accompanied by various digs at her daughter - have begun to take their toll on the younger woman. In addition to her family responsibility, there's another reason why Maureen stays with her mother. One which Mag lords over her every chance she gets.

Maureen's perennially depressed outlook is exacerbated by the fact she recently turned 40, and sees nothing in her life ever changing. Her only victories over her mom coming when she deliberately buys her the wrong type of cookies or biscuits. Mag, who harbors a deep fear of being sent to a home for the aged, does all she can to prevent any type of change to their status quo.

However things do change when Maureen learns that Pato Dooley (Marty Rea), an old friend who moved to London, is coming back from a visit. Their subsequent meeting turning into something more, and which presents the possibility of a lasting happiness for Maureen. Something Mag is determined to stop at all costs.

It should be noted that Mag sees her need to keep her daughter by her side as perfectly legitimate. Mag's status and identity are all tied up in her home, possessions and daily routine. The thought of being reduced to just another old person alone somewhere absolutely terrifies her. It's that fear which has turned her into someone with a pathological need to control those closest to her, which in turn has the effect of alienating those who, in other circumstances, would be her closest allies.

At the same time, one can't help but feel sympathy for Maureen, a woman who is certainly deserving of a life of her own. Pato finding himself caught between these forces in an initially hilarious sequence where both mother and daughter try to get the upper hand. Pato soon desperately wishing he could anywhere else.

Having seen the Druid production of the play when it was first performed in New York twenty years ago, it was the bleakness of the show I remembered most of all. What I had forgotten however, until I saw it again, was just how funny The Beauty Queen of Leenane can be. McDonagh not hitting anyone over the head with a message, but rather slowly drawing the audience into the drama by initially treating the mother-daughter relationship in a comical way, and thus quite relatable to anyone who has ever had to care for another. At least part of the comedy is delivered by Aaron Monaghan as Pato's younger brother Ray, who comes by to deliver letters or impart vital bits of news to Mag and Maureen. He, like his brother, bringing a sort of outsider quality to the two women's environment. Once which both ladies welcome, albeit for completely different reasons.

Not simply content with the initial narrative, McDonagh turns the story on its head several times by showing that the accusations Mag and Maureen level against each other are perhaps not that far off the mark. There's also the question of just how much described is actually true. The characters at times creating their own perception of reality to fit the situations in which they find themselves.

Garry Hynes, who directed the original production of Leenane, guides the play with strength and subtlety. She allowing the characters to take center stage and thus makes the play about these specific individuals who you care for, root for, or root against. At the same time, she never permits the comedic moments to overwhelm the underlying seriousness of the situation. The final effect being quite powerful and affecting. Hynes won a Tony Award for her directorial efforts with the show originally and quite deservedly so.

Mullen, who played Maureen in the original production, winning a Tony for the role, is excellent here as the physically weak, but mentally devious Mag. Someone who is determined not to lose what she has; at least not without a fight. The actress also offers up some hysterical moments via her slowly changing expression when she realizes Pato and her daughter have spent the night together.

O'Sullivan strikes a powerful yet poignant note as Maureen, a woman wanting to finally have a life of her own and who is terrified of becoming just like her mother. Rea is good as the earnest if perhaps too trusting Pato. His scenes with Mullen offer some hilarious moments, particularly when he unwittingly serves up some poetic justice for Mag via a bowl of porridge. Monaghan is fine as Ray; the only character who doesn't change during the course of the play, but rather is content to go on his merry way, never conscious of the effect his actions have on others.

Francis O' Connor's set of the Folan home is appropriately drab and depressing. Nothing warm or happy here, rather just a gray and empty space. Greg Clarke's sound design and lighting by James F. Ingalls ably adds to this effect.

Perfectly executed on so many levels, The Beauty Queen of Leenane is a masterpiece in showing how bad family life can be when one side doesn't take the time to truly consider the wishes and needs of the other.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane
by Martin McDonagh

Featuring: Aaron Monaghan (Ray Dooley), Marie Mullen (Mag Folan), Marty Rea (Pato Dooley), Aisling O'Sullivan (Maureen Folan).

Set Design by Francis O'Connor
Lighting Design by James F. Ingalls
Sound Design by Greg Clarke
Composer: Paddy Cunning

Presented by the Druid Theater Company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music
BAM Harvey Theater
651 Fulton Street
Tickets: 718-636-4100 or www.bam.org
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes, one intermission
Closes: February 5, 2017