During the time that the then 27-year-old Anglo-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh was having his first great Broadway success with “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” he was also represented in 1998 at the Public Theatre Off Broadway with a production of “The Cripple of Inishmaan.” While the former play boasted the original cast from the Galway-based Druid Theater Company under the direction of Garry Hynes, the latter had a mostly American cast under the direction of Jerry Zaks. The overall reception was not kind, with most reviewers taking exception to Zaks’s approach. Needless to say, it didn’t have the support to move to Broadway as did the Tony Award-winning “The Beauty Queen of Leenane.”
No one better dare to quibble about the lack of Irishness in this revival with Garry Hynes at the helm. This production at the Atlantic Theater Company marks its third collaboration with Hynes. She directed the lauded “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” at the Atlantic, which made the move to Broadway garnering a number of Tony nominations (it was far and away the best play of the year and should have won the Tony for Best Play). Hynes and company have transferred from Galway in tact. There is no question that these Irish players are empowered to bring out the play’s dark satiric thrust and its marvelously heightened sense of reality.
The time is 1934 and 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 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 further been encumbered since birth by a twisted leg and torso. Aaron Monaghan is riveting as Billy, a bright and literate lad who uses his wiles to get a screen test for the film and to escape his dreary surroundings.
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 Marie Mullen and Dearbhla Molloy. Their deliciously resonant, if notably redundant, chatter alone contributes considerable joy to a play that mainly resounds with poignancy. Ten years make a difference, and ten to one you won’t recognize Mullen as the same marvelous actress who won the Best Actress Tony for “The Beauty Queen of Leenane.”
Not letting his deformity stand in the way of his romantic yearnings, Billy is undaunted in his pursuit of Helen (Kerry Condon), a foul-mouthed, hot-blooded, high-strung girl, prone to slugging any man who gets in her way. Condon is terrific as this hell-cat with a hidden heart, who loves to take her own pot shots at the smitten teenager.
Feigning an incurable illness, Billy talks a local fisherman (Andrew Connolly) into rowing him to the filming site. To everyone’s surprise, the lad is taken to Hollywood. Most surprised of all is Johnnypateenmike (David Pearse), 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 (John C. Vennema) Johnnypateenmike is kept busy trying to speed up the demise of his nasty old mother (Patricia O’Connell) through an excess of booze.
It is at the general store (its old walls and scant supplies the work of designer Francis O’Connor) 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.
Hynes’s humorously edged direction embraces the limiting reality of these people. 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 and even pathetic humor Laurence Kinlan 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 made more wonderful by an exemplary cast and a director who brings out the best. ***
“Cripple of Inishmaan,” through March 1, Atlantic Theatre Company at the Linda Gross Theatre, 336 West 20th Street. $65. 212-279-4200.