Los Angeles Theater Review: THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE (Druid Theatre at Mark Taper Forum)

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by Tony Frankel on November 18, 2016

in Theater-Los Angeles


8_aislingo_sullivan_stephencummiskeyWhile the horror and suspense aren’t as palpable as previous efforts of The Beauty Queen of Leenane—Martin McDonagh’s 1996 black comedy—the dark humor, bleakness, and romance positively boil over, making Galway’s Druid Theatre Company’s revival a recommended trip.

For 20 years, 40 year-old spinster Maureen (Aisling O’Sullivan) has been tending to her devious, self-centered mother Mag (Marie Mullen), who has nothing better to do than toss her urine down the kitchen sink, wait for the news on the telly and complain about the lumps in her Complan (a powdered energy drink). It would seem logical that Maureen abandon Mag, as her sisters did long ago, but her history of mental illness and her addiction to dysfunction keeps her entombed in a dreary kitchen in a drab town in County Galway, Ireland.


When a local young doofus named Ray Dooley (Aaron Monaghan) appears with an invitation to a sendoff party for his uncle, it is made all too clear that Maureen really has nowhere to escape, as Ray embodies the monotony of small town life: he gossips about the town priest and prattles about buying a used car even though he cannot drive. Maureen attends the party and returns with Ray’s brother Pato (Marty Rea), who is living in England for the sake of employment as a bricklayer. A new romance buds from their re-acquaintance and instigates a bittersweet possibility for Maureen to escape, but both brothers end up becoming pawns in the dueling games of an implacable mother and her unstable daughter, a familial relationship that makes What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? seem tame by comparison.


McDonagh’s clever play, rife with an invented Irish patois that he has used in subsequent scripts, truly comes alive in the performance of Ms. Mullen, who evokes belly laughs from the audience even as we cringe at her manipulative, controlling behavior. She finds a childlike delight with her Machiavellian cat-and-mouse provocations while just as capably expressing fear of the repercussions from her taunting. Hers is a multi-layered, fascinating, and pitch-perfect performance.


Mr. Rea’s combination of shyness, vulnerability, and salt-of-the-earth determination is so endearing and attractive that we are chomping at the bit to see if Maureen can flee from her frustrating situation. Rea’s epistolary monologue in the second act is a highlight of the show; along with Mullen, his performance is reason enough to dash over to the Mark Taper Forum.


Ms. O’Sullivan’s poignant moments and world-weary, sullen glares bring the embittered Maureen to life; less successful is the overwhelming dullness of routine and resentful anger that makes Maureen a threatening time bomb. It also doesn’t help that O’Sullivan was damn near inaudible from the 14th row; had a friend not advised me in advance, I certainly would have missed much of her dialogue were it not for the assisted listening devices I picked up before the show. While other patrons around me got the devices at intermission, folks I knew in the first few rows had no problem hearing O’Sullivan unassisted.


The part of Ray is a scene-stealing possibility (Tom Murphy won a Tony for his portrayal in 1998), but Mr. Monaghan, although he is the perfect physical incarnation of the role, is challenged when it comes to bringing mind-numbing boredom to life, as he relies on broad gestures and yelling to define Ray’s exasperation and frustration; by playing his character’s profound ennui as anger, the actor leaves himself nowhere to go.


Director Garry Hynes is highly successful in creating an atmosphere of claustrophobia on designer Francis O’Connor’s fastidiously concentrated, ramshackle stone cottage, although the tension could have been ratcheted up a bit, almost in a Pinter-esque fashion.


Still, McDonagh’s shocking and very funny play is still a revelation in storytelling: very simple on the surface and seemingly static, it actually makes an inarguable statement about the dangers of boredom and the drama which can emanate from tedium. A bucolic, simple setting is the perfect location to point out that things are not as simple as they seem.

6_martyrea_aislingo_sullivan_stephen_cummiskeyphotos by Stephen Cummiskey
poster photo by Matthew Thompson

The Beauty Queen of Leenane
Druid Theatre Company
Center Theatre Group
Mark Taper Forum
Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave
ends on December 18, 2016
for tickets, call 213.628.2772 or visit CTG

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