Martin McDonagh’s a clever feck. Even more than his young rivals, Conor McPherson and Mark O’Rowe, he wants to bury Irish clichés—alcoholism, bile, crunchy brogues, Gothic violence, lousy weather—and dance about on their coffins. Or does he? You get the sense from watching the Roundabout Theater Company’s production of A Skull in Connemara that trafficking in Celtic stereotypes is a pleasure McDonagh alternately delights in and abhors. This central pillar of McDonagh’s Connemara Trilogy, which also includes The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Lonesome West, is a shaky one, teetering between broad comedy and pompous solemnity.
In contrast with Beauty Queen‘s intimate characters and vicious singularity of purpose, Skull has a more ambiguous narrative and murkier motives. Fiftyish gravedigger Mick Dowd, sympathetically rendered by Kevin Tighe, has been hired to exhume old graves, presumably for space reasons. Dowd is also charged with dumping the bones in the river, despite the fact that some of the graves are only seven years old—for example, his late wife’s. Furthermore, rumor has it that Dowd bludgeoned his wife to death, then deliberately had a car accident with her body in the passenger’s seat. A suspected killer disposing of the recent dead on consecrated ground in a tiny Irish town? Shouldn’t there be a riot? Maybe the audience has to bludgeon their disbelief and put it in the passenger’s seat. Still, a questionable character digging up bones on the Emerald Isle is a premise worth a smile, and a wonderful metaphor for a writer’s life.
Somewhat predictably, though, Dowd’s wife’s bones are missing. This information comes after a meandering graveyard scene recalling both Hamlet and Stoppard, without the former’s pathos or the latter’s wit. McDonagh’s delightful Galway banter carries most of the play, but here it thins out somewhat. Consider it a built-in lull, during which the audience may appreciate the set, built by scenic czar David Gallo, complete with dirt-filled graves and an unearthly inverted cemetery up in the grid.
In Act Two, McDonagh tires of Act One’s dopey, unstable scenario and sends it up as if the first half were someone else’s boring play. Crammed with hairpin plot twists and silly black humor, the second half resembles some lost Monty Python sketch. Everyone’s drunk. Dowd doesn’t drop the bones in the river, he pulverizes them with a hammer. (The opportunity for cathartic onstage skull smashing is fortunately not missed.) Teenage hooligan Martin (Christopher Carley) implicates himself in the theft of Dowd’s wife’s bones. Dowd hands the car keys to the inebriated Martin and grabs a mallet. In the next scene, Dowd appears, his shirt and mallet covered in blood. Enter constable Tom (Christopher Evan Welch), who wants Dowd to sign a confession to his wife’s murder seven years ago. Instead, Dowd confesses to killing Martin. Then Martin tumbles in, seriously injured, claiming he got his wounds from a car accident. And so on. If we’re to see any cohesive meaning in the screwball second act of A Skull in Connemara, it’s pure self-reference. The bone-smashing Dowd stands in for the playwright’s frustration with the past, while both protagonist and play reach their climax through the destruction of a “plot.”
Speaking of self-reference, the structure of Rashomon—a story about stories—is so solid and pleasing that it’s better known than the narrative it describes. This seminal work of postmodernism deftly constructs four perspectives in order to highlight the ways in which people interpret events to obscure the truth. A murder occurs in a bamboo forest, and later, at the eponymous gate, a woodcutter describes three different accounts heard during the trial, after which he confesses what “really happened.” Even Pan Asian Rep’s workmanlike interpretation of this famous tale can’t obscure the juicy intrigue of subjectivity. Tisa Chang’s production chugs along capably enough, drawn forward by an efficient adaptation by Fay and Michael Kanin and by a decent cast. Not bad, but the Kurosawa movie is better.