Saturday, March 04, 2000

Beauty of 'Leenane' is in the performances

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        There sits Mag Folan (Pauline Flanagan) like a great chenille-wrapped lump of Irish spite, rockin' in her chair, makin' her poor spinster daughter Maureen (Giulia Pagano) wait on her hand and foot, bringing her tea, her porridge, turning up the radio, turning down the telly.

        And there's poor Maureen, with her two sisters run for the hills and marriage who can't even be bothered to send a birthday card to old mum when she turns 71. For 20 years Maureen has had the care of Mag in the bleak, poor west country of Ireland where time seems to stand still somewhere in the past.

        These two make for roommates from hell. Avid moviegoers could not be blamed for suspecting that Quentin (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction) Tarantino had decided to vacation in a damp, green end of nowhere to try his hand at dysfunctional family drama and came up with The Beauty Queen of Leenane.

        It's by his young admirer Martin McDonagh, who shares the knack of making the grotesque and awful seem funny — and vice versa. It comes with the requisite violence of language and action.

        Playhouse in the Park gives Cincinnati (although not the region) its first introduction to Mr. McDonagh with a strong but not completely satisfying production of Beauty Queen in the Marx Theatre.

        The bother is that I can't tell you why because that would be giving the game away, and, admirably, that's one thing the cast does not do.

        Let's just say that Beauty Queen puts me in mind of a potboiler. According to Webster's, a potboiler is a work of fiction that's written quickly and for money. As it happens, Mr. McDonagh wrote it in eight days and has already made pots of money from it. (It's being performed at more regional theaters than any other title this year, which will make him, and hopefully the theaters, more money.)

        I'll expand that definition to include some twists and turns and surprises in plotting. Beauty Queen comes to a boil too soon, leaving another whole scene to be gotten through before it rolls to an end.

        It always seems to be raining in Leenane, and it's raining for real down on James Wolk's set, which nicely captures the dismal Folan cottage in the hills of the back of beyond.

        Trapped as much by unfriendly elements as they are by each other, Mag and Maureen's bickering becomes something more when Pato Dooley (Matt Loney) returns to town.

        Mag holds back an invitation. Maureen ups the ante and persuades Pato to stay the entire night. Mag trumps her by burning a letter.

        They're playing dangerous games.

        Both women's performances are smashing. Ms. Pagano embodies lonely, desperate, emotional barrenness and frustration. Ms. Flanagan is a celebration of droll malice.

        But Mr. McDonagh's story arc asks them to do the impossible. Once you know what you know, especially when the above-mentioned pot comes to its boil, you realize a vital tiny thread of tension has been missing and deflates the pay-off and play-out.

        Mr. Loney is endearing as a mug who's better with words than he thinks he is. Kevin Henderson is hilarious as Pato's slacker nephew.

        There's more Mr. McDonagh to come shortly when his (vastly superior) The Cripple of Inishmaan opens at Ensemble on March 15.

        The Beauty Queen of Leenane, through March 31, Playhouse in the Park. 421-3888.


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