Corrections or additions?
This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper
on April 29, 1998. All rights reserved.
`Cripple of Inishmaan’
You have probably heard the news that Martin McDonagh’s
play, "The Beauty Queen of Leenane," is such a critical and
popular success that it is transferring from its sold-out run Off-Broadway
to Broadway’s Walter Kerr Theater. But keep looking downtown. Another
play by the 27-year-old Anglo-Irish playwright has come to town, and
it’s a gem called "The Cripple of Inishmaan."
While "Beauty Queen" has the arguable advantage of its original
cast from Ireland’s Druid Theater Company, "The Cripple" has
a terrific, mostly American cast, under the direction of Jerry Zaks.
Unlike the dark humor that penetrates the rather predictable, if engrossing,
dramaturgy of "Beauty Queen," "The Cripple" is rich
with briskly vented lyricism, a bright satiric thrust, and a marvelously
heightened sense of reality.
The time is the early 1930s. Life is about to change for a group of
plain people who live on one of the small, barely-inhabited Aran Islands
off the coast of Ireland. A film company has arrived. Suddenly the
inhabitants begin to fancy themselves playing extras in a documentary-filmmaker’s
latest epic, "Man of Aran." It is these people’s plainness
that becomes our pleasure and McDonagh’s passion. Lend an acute ear
and you will roar with laughter at the unbridled banter that abounds
in this compassionate and tender play.
The central character is "Cripple Billy," who, for as long
as he can remember, has been haunted by the conflicting stories of
his parents’ tragic and mysterious death; he has been further encumbered
since birth by a twisted leg and torso. Nineteen-year-old Ruaidhri
Conroy (from the original company) is vital and endearing as Billy,
a bright and literate lad who uses his wiles to get a role in the
film and to escape his dreary surroundings.
Cripple Billy has been reared from infancy by two aunts. These delightful
and eccentric old biddies who run the island’s general store are well
served by the finely tuned and timed performances of Roberta Maxwell
and Elizabeth Franz. Their deliciously resonant, if notably redundant,
chatter alone is worth the price of admission. Not letting his deformity
stand in the way of his romantic yearnings, Cripple Billy is undaunted
in his pursuit of Helen (Aisling O’Neill), a foul-mouthed, hot-blooded,
high-strung girl, prone to slugging any man who gets in her way. Aisling
O’Neill is terrific as this hellcat with a hidden heart who loves
to take her own pot shots at the smitten teenager.
Feigning an incurable illness, Crippled Billy talks a local fisherman
(Michael Gaston) into rowing him to the filming site. To everyone’s
surprise, the lad is taken to Hollywood for a screen test. Most surprised
of all is Johnnypateenmike (Donal Donnelly), a rascally, spying old
codger, the town’s male version of a yenta. When he isn’t relaying
gossip in payment for eggs, or trying to worm private information
from the local doctor (Peter Maloney), Johnnypateenmike is kept busy
trying to speed up the demise of his nasty old mother (Eileen Brennan)
through an excess of booze. It is at the general store (its stone
walls among the chilly, but artful, settings by Tony Walton) that
we are privy to the hilariously dull gossip and the random and mindless
speculating of those with little to talk about — but sex, a feud
between a goose and a cat, and the fate of a put-upon cripple.
Zaks’ comically edged direction will undoubtedly come under fire.
Some will complain that Zaks emphasizes these people as caricatures.
Others, like myself, will commend Zaks for embracing and enhancing
the dazzling wit and dotty nature of these islanders. These are colorful,
inbred people without material things who are nevertheless made rich
by reveling in the spoken word and by revering each other’s outrageous
behavior. Then there is the subtle humor that Christopher Fitzgerald
brings to the role of the young, simple-minded Bartley whose life
revolves around candy purchases and longing to own a telescope —
"You can see a worm a mile away." This is a wonderful play
and not to be missed.HHHH
Street, 800-432-7250. $40. Extended to May 17.
Perhaps I stand alone in my negative reaction to Martin
McDonagh’s play, "The Beauty Queen of Leenane." With unqualified
admiration for the direction of Garry Hynes, of Ireland’s Galway-based
Druid Theater, and his superb Irish cast — Anna Manahan, Marie
Mullen, Brian F. O’Bryne, and Tom Murphy — the play is still surprisingly
dull and predictable. That each beautifully rendered moment and each
exactingly predicated predicament comes only after we’ve already guessed
(correctly) what will happen next, doesn’t necessarily make for an
extraordinary dramatic experience. Of course it all happens melodramatically
and with lots of morbidly funny dialogue.
At the core of McDonagh’s play, which is set in Leenane, a bleak town
in County Galway, is a contorted vision of desperation and the tentative
stability of mental illness. Propelling the action is the hate-filled
relationship of Maureen (Marie Mullen), a 40-year-old spinster, and
Mag (Anna Manahan), her vindictive and domineering mum. Because
she is unwilling to go into a home, the lazy yet strong Mag engineers
countless ways to keep her daughter a slave to her every need. She
is also not above emptying her pot of "wee" into a sink filled
Not having had any time for romantic attachments in the 15 years since
her mental breakdown, the now-recovered Maureen is surprised by the
sudden and ardent attentions of her long-time neighbor, Pato Dooley
(O’Byrne), recently returned home from London, and who calls her his
local "beauty queen." After spending a night together, Maureen
is not surprised by Mag’s vicious and vindictive response to this
unwelcome wooer. Neither are we.
The plot thickens, or actually curdles considerably, when Pato departs
in search of work. During his absence, Mag uses her cunning not only
to interfere with the delivery of a letter, but to insure that the
now hallucinating Maureen will never be free to leave her. Also duped
by the old hag is Ray (Tom Murphy), Pato’s younger brother who unwittingly
becomes the ineffectual go-between and dim-witted catalyst of the
play’s tragic outcome. More affecting than the dour truths and depressing
consequences revealed in the story, is the savage mercurial behavior
we witness and the infuriating venom we hear that passes for conversation.
In McDonagh’s play, you may hear the rippling of the next O’Casey
or Synge, or you may simply hear the rustling of programs.HH
800-432-7250. $20 to $55.
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