Theater Review: THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE (Studio/Stage in Hollywood)

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by Tony Frankel on September 21, 2018

in Theater-Los Angeles

BLACK COMEDY, KITCHEN SINK DRAMA
& ONE FECKIN’ MOTHER

While the horror and suspense aren’t as delectable as previous productions of The Beauty Queen of Leenane — Martin McDonagh’s 1996 black comedy — the dark humor, bleakness, and romance positively boil over, making Capricorn Eleven Productions’ revival a recommended trip.

For 20 years, 40 year-old spinster Maureen (Angela Nicholas) has been tending to her devious, self-centered mother Mag (Casey Kramer), who has nothing better to do than toss her urine (pronounced “yer-AYHN”) down the kitchen sink, wait for the news on the telly, and complain about the lumps in her Complan (a chicken-flavored 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 (Curtis Belz) 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 (Tim Hildebrand), 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. Kramer, who evokes laughs even as we cringe at her manipulative, controlling behavior. She takes a childlike delight in her Machiavellian cat-and-mouse provocations while just as capably expressing fear of the repercussions from her taunting.

Ms. Nicholas’s poignant moments and world-weary, sullen glares bring the embittered Maureen to life; you can truly sense the overwhelming dullness of routine and resentful anger that makes Maureen a threatening time bomb.

Mr. Hildebrand’s combination of shyness, vulnerability, and salt-of-the-earth determination is so endearing and attractive as Pato that we are champing at the bit to see if Maureen can flee from her frustrating situation. Hildebrand’s epistolary monologue in the second act — in which he practices his missive to Maureen — is a highlight.

The part of Ray is a scene-stealing possibility (Tom Murphy won a Tony for his portrayal in 1998), but Mr. Belz, although he is the perfect physical incarnation of the role — offering some surprisingly tender moments I’ve not seen in other productions — he is challenged when it comes to bringing mind-numbing boredom to life.

While director Mark Kemble is highly successful in helping his actors make some fascinating choices on Ms. Nicholas’s fastidiously concentrated, highly detailed, ramshackle stone cottage set, we don’t really get an atmosphere of claustrophobia. The romance between Pato and Maureen is beautifully palpable – one of the best scenes is their late-night romance after the party — but the tension could have been ratcheted up a bit elsewhere, almost in a Pinter-esque fashion, and the pacing could be tighter. And at a pivotal moment, one character downstage center completely blocked another character’s movement — the two thespians should have switched places. While Mr. Kemble created a multitude of stunning and riveting moments, he does have trouble shaping the show overall.

Some of sound designer Greg Crafts’ music choices are incongruous, and I wish that the TV and radio sounds were more directional (sometimes the audio was coming from the back of the house). Also, Crafts’ lights too often flooded the playing areas and elsewhere (heavy blues outside; thick reds from the furnace), and when Pato works on his letter in England, the spill-light shines on Mag and Maureen’s kitchen, too.

All told, 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. 

photos by Capricorn Eleven Prods and Thai Long Ly

The Beauty Queen of Leenane
Capricorn Eleven Productions
Studio/Stage, 520 N. Western
Fri and Sat at 8; Sun at 7
ends on October 21, 2018
for tickets, call 323.960.7774 or visit Plays 411

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