Anyone who knows me knows that the Mark Taper Forum is my favorite theatre venue in California. The morning of opening night of The Beauty Queen of Leenane by Martin McDonagh, I went to get a haircut and learned from my hairdresser that that it was also his favorite. An old actress girlfriend of his (I wonder who?!) had performed there a number of times and he informed me that structurally it was modeled after the Gutherie Theatre in Minnesota. “Not a bad seat in the house,” he told me. I couldn’t agree more. Plus, there is something magical about the Taper, that based on the set design, gives it the ability to feel very up-close and intimate, or very expansive and spread out.
This show was up close and personal, in both senses of the phrase. We spend approximately two hours in what is more or less a sparse, deteriorating home in the tiny village of Leenane (Lee-NAN) in the county of Gallway, Ireland. The Irish charm and crassness of the play brought me back to my days studying abroad there, and made me miss it more. We are introduced to the mundane (almost so much so that it’s painful) lifestyle of seventy-year-old Mag Folan and her literal 40-year-old-virgin daughter Maureen. Their love/hate, nearly Stockholm syndrome relationship is complex, yet one I think many can connect to on some familial level. Maureen feels obligated to take care of her crotchety, ailing, devious mother while her sisters refuse to have have anything to do with the women. She has been caring for Mag for about the past twenty-five years. The audience can see that Maureen is dying inside, as she begrudgingly waits on Mag’s every beck and call. So when Pato Dooley, an old flame of Maureen’s, returns to Leenane from London for a local send-off party, we’re wishing just about as much as her that their reunion will blossom into a love that she, at this stage, just about needs to survive.
After a number of somewhat hit-or-miss seasons at the Taper, I cannot urge you enough to see this play. Do not judge a play by its poster. Fortune cookie review: incredible writing, astounding acting. This could be the greatest dark comedy I have ever seen performed. McDonagh’s script will have you laughing hysterically one minute and cringing, stomach churning the next. His exploration of these women and their relationships is as equally moving as it is haunting. So it’s no wonder that Marie Mullen returns to this script, now in the role of Mag after winning the Tony award for best leading actress in a play, playing the role of Maureen, eighteen years ago in the original Broadway production. The script stands strong, but no one in the cast falls slightly short of delivering their character’s spirit, prerogative and humor truthfully to their audience. With the cast imported straight out of Ireland’s renowned Druid Theatre, it’s refreshing, if not awakening to see such a fully realized, developed, powerful play on the Taper stage, void of LA celebrity cameo’s, limited rehearsal time and workshop level scripts. This, is theatre.
Whenever I leave a show, I always ask myself, what does this make me want to change? This production spoke to my element of change on a personal level (vs. a global, community or political level, ect.). I would watch Maureen interacting with Pato and cringe at her choice of words and behavior, probably because I have also said/done some similar things around men, just not all in the same horrifying scene. So the play makes me want to watch my behavior involving romantic situations with men. The play also makes me want to pick my battles and be kinder to those around me. Because astonishingly, that is not always the case. We have some extreme characters in this play representing the worst of these poor qualities, but through them, we can easily see it broken down into our own lives. Well, for me at least.
The play brought me from probably zero interest in reading Martin McDonagh’s work, to like, one hundred. This could be one of the darkest, funniest dark comedies I have ever seen and his melding of the two are incredibly impressive. I’m very interested in reading more work like this or seeing how his body of work varies from this style. I had forgotten that he is also the author of The Pillowman, which I may also need to revisit. Also, love that Irish-ness. Can’t help it I guess; it’s in me blood.
I highly recommend this production. The show runs November 9 through December 18 at the Mark Taper Forum at the Music Center in downtown Los Angeles. It will continue on its US tour to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in January 2017 before heading to Pittsburgh and Ann Arbor.