The Beauty Queen of Leenane begins and ends with an homage to Samuel Beckett’s Rockaby: An old woman, weathered and embittered, sits in a rocking chair as though she has been there for centuries. Unlike Beckett’s old crone, however, Beauty Queen playwright Martin McDonagh’s withered woman gets up from her chair every now and then to wreak havoc on those around her, in particular her daughter and caretaker, Maureen (Aisling O’Sullivan).
Like Beckett, McDonagh hails from Ireland and fills his theater with despondent comedy. Beauty Queen, which launched his rise to fame when it was first performed in Galway in 1996, and then on Broadway in 1998, stretches a Beckettian sense of futility, a clear-eyed confrontation with permanent misery, into the two acts of his kitchen-sink realism. By the play’s end, although it is now Maureen sitting in her mother’s chair, very little seems destined to improve.
The twentieth-anniversary production at BAM by Galway’s Druid Theatre Company captures some of the same sense of change and continuity as the play itself: Garry Hynes, who directed the original production, brings back Marie Mullen, who originated Maureen, to play Mag, her mother (Hynes and Mullen are co-founders of Druid, the company that discovered McDonagh and produced Queen and his other early work). Much seems to have carried over from that first staging, including Francis O’Connor’s bleak brown sets, most notably the dilapidated kitchen where Maureen and Mag have harangued each other for two decades.
The play is as biting and horrific as ever, but a constriction of energy has settled on the whole affair, leaving it unable to explode the way it needs to. Mullen’s Mag is monstrous at times, but no monster. Her face rests in an annoyed scowl that occasionally flashes vulnerability — sadness about her past, fear about her future. It’s a bold choice for a character whose viciousness is designed to ground the play, and it is matched in inverse by O’Sullivan, whose Maureen is hard, angry, and vindictive. She softens considerably opposite Marty Rea, who brings a charming and infinitely forgivable doltishness to the love interest in whom Maureen plants her hopes for escape. The result is that the younger woman never quite feels the victim, and the cruelty she and her mother exchange resembles the shadow of unkempt intimacy rather than the steam of danger, slowly boiling.
McDonagh’s Grand Guignol–indebted script would succeed in the worst situations; Druid’s polished if staid revival hardly fits that description. If the gasps emanating from the Harvey’s audience at Beauty Queen‘s surprise grisly turn are any indication, a new generation of horrified admirers is now being born — even if this particular show leaves a few goosebumps unraised.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane
By Martin McDonagh
BAM Harvey Theater
Through February 5