In McDonagh’s Beauty Queen of Leenane, the Irish situation looks familiar

Mag and Maureen in The Beauty Queen of Leenane

Marie Mullen as Mag and Aisling O’Sullivan as Maureen, in the Druid production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane at BAM. (Photo by Richard Termine)

People are looking around and saying, the jobs are gone, the opportunities are gone, I’m stuck, and I don’t like it. That’s Donald Trump’s America, but also Martin McDonagh’s Ireland as seen in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, his first play, being performed at BAM through February 5. Ray, the youngest of the four characters, hasn’t yet left the village and gone abroad, but by the end he’s considering it. Pato has spent a large part of the last 20 years working elsewhere. England looms large and resentfully in the conversation; it offers chances for migrant workers (just as the oil kingdoms of the Middle East do), but they’re treated with little respect (again as in the oil kingdoms). The U.S. shines more brightly; one character says early on, as rain falls outside, “in America it does be more sunny nowadays.” For Maureen, unmarried at 40, and Mag, her mother, now 70 and semidisabled, the situation is more fraught. They’re caught in a twisty dance of duty and dependence and spite that appears to have gone on for years and that grows increasingly desperate over the course of the play. Both are fearsome creatures, who prove to be capable of horrible acts, and the surprising thing about this cage fight is that, as Maureen glimpses a way out while Mag sees none, it’s funny as well as horrifying to watch their maneuvers. This is black comedy, as the review quotes in the ads will tell you, but in the end the comedy gives way to the blackness. What one feels in the final scene is like watching the last glowing ember in a fireplace wink out, leaving one rising wisp of smoke.

McDonagh’s play is rather minimalist, employing slender means that suggest more than they say. Motifs in the dialogue deftly sketch not only the broader economic situation but also the atmosphere of casual violence in which the characters live. To some degree, one senses that all of Ireland is caught up in the same dance of dependence and spite in which Mag and Maureen are enmeshed. The current staging at BAM, which arrives intact from a 20th-anniversary production in Galway, Ireland, by the Druid company and which was directed by Garry Hynes, is similarly minimalist in its stillness. A number of major speeches are delivered by one character or another who sits or stands almost motionless. But the production may go too far in attempting to give the play weight. The scene-bridge music, by Paddy Cunneen, repeatedly impresses foreboding upon us. The set seems too big, the theater itself (the 800-plus-seat Harvey, on Fulton) seems too big, the voices are often less than fully intelligible, as if lost in the space, and the show seems too spread out in time, as if devastation can only be played slow. I once saw a production of Romeo and Juliet that radically condensed Shakespeare’s text into one quick, intermissionless run from beginning to end, lasting only about 90 minutes as I recall, and conveying the rush (in both senses) of love that the two leads experience. The Beauty Queen of Leenane does have weight, a good deal of it. I just wonder whether it can be played a little more quickly and lightly, with more of its gravity implied. Nonetheless, it comes across here with its comedy and its shock fully rendered.

The four members of the cast are Aaron Monaghan as Ray, Marie Mullen as Mag, Marty Rea as Pato, and Aisling O’Sullivan as Maureen. They’re all marvelously vivid, and when I couldn’t make out what they were saying (my companion had the same problem, so it wasn’t just me), I was still entranced by the lilt of their voices.

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