`The Beauty Queen of Leenane’

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

The Cripple of Inishmaan, Public Theater, 425 Lafayette

Street, 800-432-7250. $40. Extended to May 17.

Top Of Page
`The Beauty Queen of Leenane’

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

with dishes.

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

The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Walter Kerr, 219 West 48,

800-432-7250. $20 to $55.

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