BWW Reviews: THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE Is a Bit Too Pretty at Third Rail
One of the hardest plays to pull off is the dark comedy. You have to get the tone exactly right. Play it too dark, and it becomes unbearable; too light, and the dark side is wasted. Choosing to put on one of these is asking for trouble, and Martin McDonagh's Leenane Trilogy is especially challenging. McDonagh's plays are like sitcoms with the anger boiling underneath; they're like Cheers if the characters had all been wasted alcoholics, or the "Eunice" sketches from The Carol Burnett Show with the wackiness dialed way down. Done right, and you laugh, but as soon as you laugh something comes along to horrify you.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane is the story of Maureen, a forty-year-old spinster with a history of mental health issues. She lives in a small cottage on a hill near Leenane with her mother, Mag, who sits in her rocking chair complaining about her aches and pains and asking everyone to get her tea or porridge, or to turn the radio on. Maureen and Mag have a cranky, resentful relationship; Mag is willing to do just about anything to keep Maureen from having any sort of life, and Maureen is unhappy that her sisters have escaped having to help with their mother. The Dooley brothers drop by, first Ray, who's young and impatient, and then his older brother Pato, who's been doing construction work in England to pay the bills. Pato is attracted to Maureen, and vice versa, but neither Ray nor Mag wants to see them together.
Director Scott Yarbrough doesn't make the play angry enough. Some angry things are going to happen, and there is going to be violence, but the production doesn't build up to it. Maureen and Mag trade barbs with each other, but the lines don't sting; they're like sitcom jokes that don't have any effect. Forty years of resentments and disagreements should hurt more, should be delivered like spears. McDonagh builds the play to some truly awful events, but those events here come out of nowhere. We haven't seen the anger underneath.
The actors, under these conditions, can't make much out of their roles. Rolland Walsh as Ray has some great physical business as he tries to entertain himself while bored, but we don't see the character's frustration. Damon Kupper's Ray is sweet, but we don't see how much he longs for a woman in his life. Jayne Taini works hard as Mag, but she comes across as sweet and mischievous rather than diabolical and manipulative. And Maureen Porter, who's usually wonderful, here seems too nice and level-headed to be carrying Maureen's anger and delusions.
The show looks wonderful. Scenic Designer Curt Enderle creates a believable cottage (the second rural Irish cottage I've been to this week) and adds extraordinary rain effects to build the sense of isolation the play needs. The costumes and sound are just right, giving us the sense of a contemporary Irish village just off the grid, and the Irish accents are believable without being cartoonish.
The pieces are all there: a great setting, a talented cast, a marvelous script. And if the tone were just a bit darker, The Beauty Queen of Leenane would be a harrowing, heart-rending piece of theater. It's a rare misfire for Third Rail, and I'm sure their next work will be back to their usual impeccable standards.