by Carol Rocamora
“All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does, and that is his.”
Oscar Wilde’s quip comes to mind, while watching the scorching revival of The Beauty Queen of Leenane written by another Ango-Irish playwright, Martin McDonagh. But while Wilde’s wit amuses, McDonagh’s black humor bites deep, and the teeth marks are permanent.
Beauty Queen – a terrifying black comedy about a mother/daughter relationship – is the play that put McDonagh on the map. Discovered by director Garry Hynes, she grabbed it, produced it in 1996 at her Druid Theatre in Galway, and the rest is theatre history. The play was an instant hit, transferring to London’s Royal Court Theatre, then to the Atlantic Theatre Company in New York, and finally to Broadway in 1998. Subsequently, McDonagh’s The Lonesome West, The Cripple of Inishmaan, The Pillowman, and The Lieutenant of Inishmore also followed the trans-Atlantic route to great success.
Today, Beauty Queen returns to New York – this time to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, directed once again by Garry Hynes and starring Marie Mullen as Mag Folan, the Irish-mother-from hell who keeps her 40-year-old daughter Maureen in cruel domestic captivity. (Of special theatre history note: Marie Mullen played the role of the daughter in the premiere production two decades ago).
The scene is a miserable cottage in a remote village on Ireland’s bleak west coast (where many of McDonagh’s plays take place). A never-ending rain falls outside the squalid sitting room (designed by Francis O’Connor) where Mother Mag reigns supreme, sitting in her rocking chair before the telly, waiting for her daughter Maureen’s return from work to pounce on her and torture her. (Maureen, reportedly still a virgin, has had a wretched life thus far – an unsuccessful attempt to escape as a cleaning girl in Leeds, a nervous breakdown, and now indentured servitude to her mother). But on this particular night, there is a ray of light in the Irish gloom – Maureen has a “gentleman caller” in the form of Pato Dooley, an upright young fella from the village who shows her true affection.
But Maureen’s short-lived hopes to escape with Pato Dooley are cruelly crushed by her scheming mother Mag – and the discovery of Mag’s guilt erupts into a violent, horrific confrontation (spoiler alert – beware that hot stove in the corner of the kitchen!)
As Mag, Marie Mullen is a grotesque (and devilishly funny) “Mommie Dearest”. Daughter Maureen, played by the feisty Aisling O’Sullivan, gives as good as she gets. At first, she’s no equal for her miserable mum, but when Mag takes away her only chance of happiness, Maureen finally shows her mother that she’s met her maternal match. As sweet Pato, Maureen’s one-night stand, Marty Rea gives an endearing performance, and Aaron Monaghan as Pato’s brother Ray plays the “local village clueless type” to the hilt. Garry Hynes’s meticulous direction distinguishes her as the authoritative interpreter of McDonagh’s work.
McDonagh, a Londoner of Irish descent, is a cunning and masterful storyteller. Behind that Irish provincial folksiness lurks a sophisticated craftsman who knows how to spin a yarn, entertain his audience, and at the same time keep us on the edge of our seats. Above all, McDonagh’s wicked sense of black humor and his ability to create colorful characters are the talents that distinguish him as one of the most successful playwrights of his generation.
Meanwhile, Mag and Maureen will take their place along side of Amanda and Laura Wingfield (in Williams’s The Glass Menagerie) as one of the most memorable mother/daughter portrayals in contemporary theatre. If only poor Laura had had Maureen’s moxie….
Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane, directed by Garry Hynes, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, now through February 5.
Photos: Richard Termine