Saturday, March 04, 2000

Playwright's pen oozes Ireland

Martin McDonagh latest Young Angry Man to write dark, entertaining tales of the downtrodden isle

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Irish bad boy playwright Martin McDonagh smashed his way into the New York theater consciousness two years ago with back-to-back stage hits about strange people doing strange things in an Irish backwater.

        In 1998, American audiences met Mr. McDonagh's array of eccentrics and grotesques in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, now on stage at Playhouse in the Park, and The Cripple of Inishmaan, opening at Ensemble Theatre on March 15.

        Critics embraced him as The Next Best Thing. Yet on the surface, his success seems unlikely.

        Mr. McDonagh, 29, grew up in a tough, blue-collar section of London. He dropped out of school at 16, and for years split his income between the public dole and a job as a civil service clerk.

        His inspiration to start writing came from England's TV soaps. He figured he could write better. By age 26, he had written eight plays.

        Dig a little deeper and his success couldn't be likelier. Five great writing traditions — and a lucky piece of timing — intersect in Martin McDonagh.

        He is Irish. He is an angry young man from an economically depressed neighborhood. He writes about a distinctive place. He has a playful nihilist's appreciation for and mastery of shock theater. He writes in a familiar, audience-friendly narrative style.

        And, says Charlotte Moore, artistic director of New York's Irish Repertory Theatre, in the past decade all things Irish have sailed in on the wake of Riverdance. “There's been an explosion of Irishness,” she says.

        Never mind that Mr. McDonagh is a Londoner, scoffs Ms. Moore. He was born and reared by Irish parents. His father was a Galway-born construction worker, his mother a Sligo-born cleaning lady. He lived in a densely Irish neighborhood, listening to stories.

        He has an Irishman's gift of the gab and mordant (and morbid) sense of humor. Layer that with his family's life as Irish emigres.

        The Irish “were put down and spat upon” in the years that Mr. McDonagh would have been growing up, says Ms. Moore. “It's not that much better today. I'm stunned by the residual hatred and condescension.”

        Not surprisingly, Mr. McDonagh, who is not granting interviews, choosing instead to write, fits nicely into the long tradition of Angry Young Man writers. You find them wherever there is perceived injustice, particularly economic, religious and/or political non-parity.

        You can't dismiss the combination of anger and Irishness, says Jasson Minadakis, 29-year-old artistic director of Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival. He echoes that younger audiences' love of all things Irish, particularly the spiritual underpinnings of Irish music, factors into Mr. McDonagh's popularity.

        “He plays on younger people's perception of what their history is. A lot of people my age don't feel like we really belong to America yet.

        “We feel disconnected, and the spirituality of Irish music works for us. We've been bombarded with it for the last 10 years. Since then, it's been co-opted by pop music so it seems spiritual without being attached to a church building.

        “He gets that, and he has that young rage thing going.”

Angry young man
        Mr. McDonagh is an angry young man, asserts Ms. Moore, who will speak at 7 p.m. next Sunday in the free Playhouse Perspectives lecture series.

        “He's very sullen, he smokes like a funnel, he drinks like a fish. And he has the Irish, Irish, Irish distinction of being suspicious. There's no more suspicious group on the face of the earth, and he writes from that perspective.”

        And, she adds pragmatically, it doesn't hurt box office that he's good-looking, cheeky and arrogant. “And he's so bright. And fearless.”

        Mr. McDonagh has marked his territory, as clearly as William Faulkner focused on a small corner of Mississippi. He has chosen what a fellow Irish playwright, J.M. Synge, defined as “the lonesome west.” In fact, one of his plays carries that title.

        His plays are mostly set in earlier parts of the 20th century and always in the bleak and isolated counties of northwest Ireland.

        Significantly, he writes with what Norma Jenckes defines as a “ghoulish glee,” which sets him apart from a slew of other new young writers. Ms. Jenckes, a playwright, teacher of playwriting at University of Cincinnati and expert on Irish theater, is consultant for ETC's Cripple of Inishmaan.

        You can draw the path through world history — even Shakespeare had his moments. He was little more than a lad when he wrote the limb-chopping Titus Andronicus, which includes torture and cannibal cuisine.

        Mr. McDonagh wrote Beauty Queen of Leenane (pronounced luh-NON) in eight days when he was 23. It was his first play. An adult daughter and her aging mother are caged together in a miserable cottage, continually raising the stakes in their game of mutual loathing and co-dependency.

        It's marked by black humor and a melodrama/thriller's twists and turns, to say nothing of gasps and shrieks.

        “Family violence unchecked is thrilling,” Mr. Minadakis laughs.

        And there is Cripple, set in the '30s. This play is anchored to a tiny piece of history — a Hollywood filmmaker comes to an obscure Irish island to make a movie — which carries all the McDonagh trademarks outlined above.

Writing in trilogies
        Mr. Minadakis points out that movie-loving Mr. McDonagh tends to write in trilogies. (Beauty Queen and Cripple are parts of separate series.)

        “He plays on the whole serial thing. My generation grew up on Star Wars.” (And have been turning the Scream series into big box office.) “We love stories that are tied together. It goes back to religion and myth.”

        If Mr. McDonagh has myth in one back pocket, he has violence in the other. Sex and violence are tools of choice with under-30 artists trying to push the envelope of social mores. His sensibility finds kindred spirits in independent films like Trainspotting; Run, Lola, Run; Boogie Nights, and Chasing Amy.

        Mr. McDonagh doesn't have the stage all to himself. Just look to Sam Mendes brutal rethinking of Cabaret, closing today at Aronoff Center for the Arts. The Playhouse's premiere of Angus MacLachlan's The Dead-Eye Boy later this month could be a first cousin to last year's wicked off-Broadway hit, Killer Joe.

        What most sets Mr. McDonagh apart is that he has been writing primarily about the past in a style from the past: a clear narrative track largely abandoned by many emerging playwrights and filmmakers.

        “You don't get that long, involved narrative in TV and movies,” observes Ms. Moore. “So much is in sound bites, and I think audiences think, "enough already, let's have a beginning, a middle and an end.' It's the way the 19th-century literary masters wrote. Dickens was no fool.”

"Laugh in the dark'
        Also attractive to audiences, hypothesizes Ms. Jenckes, is Mr. McDonagh's sure way of turning a theater into a carnival-like “laugh in the dark,” where terror awaits at every turn.

        Mr. McDonagh's writing is arguably, along with all the rest, a descendant of Grand Guignol, a theatrical craze born at the turn of the last century and so appealing its doors stayed open in Paris until 1962.

        Alternating brutality and farce, Grand Guignol presented horrific things on stage — eye-gouging, burning, everything from psychological suggestion to gore.

        “It's a great way to compete with movies,” says Ms. Jenckes. “What can the stage do well? It can scare you. The Greeks talked about it in plays like Medea, but the violence was off-stage. Producers started saying, "Let's show it onstage.'

        “By finding its way into the mainstream, it's respectable. People have always been fascinated by shock, by horror, by voyeurism. Positioning it on a legitimate stage takes away our guilt. We don't have to be ashamed of having a good time.”

        The Beauty Queen of Leenane

        • When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 5 and 9 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday through March 31.

        • Where: Playhouse in the Park Marx Theatre, Eden Park.

        • Tickets: $27.50-$39.50. Unreserved seats are half-price on of show at Playhouse box office and PNC Bank Tower Tix between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. 421-3888.

        The Cripple of Inishmaan

        • When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday March 15-April 9.

        • Where: Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, 1127 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine.

        • Tickets: $25. 421-3555.


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