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BWW Review: Keegan Theatre's Masterful THE LONESOME WEST a Brawling Night of Theatre

At one point in the first act of The Lonesome West, Michael McDonagh's cock-eyed take on fraternal angst, a local priest in County Leenane looks around him and, considering the utter futility of his position, admits:

"It seems God has no jurisdiction in this town."

The fact that this elicits a healthy laugh, in Mark A. Rhea's brisk staging at the Keegan Theatre, is a good sign. Because although McDonagh's aim is uneven at times, Rhea has assembled a stellar cast that fearlessly tackles it all. As Father Welsh-the clergyman mentioned above - Chris Stezin is the perfect straight man, desperately treading water (or the local poteen, to be more precise) and trying to maintain his composure in an utterly mad town.

The chief object of Welsh's frustration are the Connor brothers, Coleman (the hilariously sleazy Matthew J. Keenan) and Valene (Bradley Foster Smith, in yet another brilliant turn). Coleman and Valene can't even reflect on their own father's death without butting heads, fists, what-have-you, and all for nothing. (The circumstances of their father's death, revealed later, don't help the relationship much). Meanwhile their local booze runner, Girleen (Sarah Chapin, who gives as good as she gets), tries in vain to mediate-or at least get these blockheads to stop fighting every time she stops by.

Keenan's set is a mixture of bachelor-shabby and working-class kitsch with busted upholstered chairs, bleak walls punctuated by holy figurines (thereby hangs a tale, too), a prominent hearth and fireplace. Tony Angelini's sound design, meanwhile, is a nice mixture of ambient sound and snarky pop hits; given the competition between the Connor brothers, opening Act 2 with a certain Hollies classic is a stroke of genius.

McDonagh creates a pair of brothers who compare nicely with Sam Shepherd's True West; one the nebbish (Smith) and the other a rough unkempt character (Keenan), with the Irish twist that neither of them even seem to have a joB. Smith's Valene is a bundle of eccentricities, constantly on the lookout for figurines with which to annoy the hell out of his brother; Coleman returns the favor by drinking all the hooch in the house. Even when they try to reconcile, the results are a priceless display of Catholic one-upsmanship, with confession and forgiveness deployed as the ultimate psychological weapons. What's especially satisfying is that when they come to blows, fight choreographer Casey Kaleba has created sequences that have the sloppy, drunken feel of a real family feud. Keenan and Smith reel, roll and flail around in perfect disharmony.

What rings false, however, is McDonagh's attempt at rationality amidst all the mayhem. Given his Quentin Tarentino-like taste for the macabre and sickly humorous the quiet, confessional monologue delivered by Father Welsh in Act 2 (Stezin's finest moment) seems as out of place as it is eloquent. Given that we know what kind of play we're watching, McDonagh's attempt to distract us with realistic commentary on what is a cartoonish enterprise is confusing. Do we really need to know that for all the dark humor, this playwright cares about humanity? Do we really need a tragic event to set the scene for the Connor brothers' final, hilarious brawl? It's as if Moe stopped to apologize to Curly and Larry for poking their eyes out, and lamented his short temper. Utterly out of place, in my humble opinion.

For fans of McDonagh's outrageous dramaturgy, Keegan Theatre's production of The Lonesome West should be truly satisfying, especially now that the dog days of summer are upon us.

Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes, with one intermission.

Production Photo: Bradley Foster Smith (left) and Matthew Keenan. Photos by Cameron Whitman Photography.

Lonesome West plays at the Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church Street NW, Washington, DC from August 6-27. For tickets, please call 202-265-3767, email ... or visit:

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From This Author - Andrew White