Martin McDonagh, the Irish wunderkind whose plays have been taking London and New York by storm, writes dramas that are beautiful and ugly at the same time. In “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” a mother and daughter engage in a dysfunctional pas de deux, each trying to get the upper hand by cruelly taking advantage of the other’s most intimate vulnerabilities. This is not pleasant emotional terrain, but McDonagh’s sharp, sometimes very funny writing, and two excellent performances, help the South Coast production of the play cast a disturbing and memorable spell in its Southern California premiere.
The play is set in a remote, tiny town in Ireland, where there’s no work and nothing to do except watch the news and the Australian soap operas on the “telly.” Mag (Anne Gee Byrd), an old widow, spends her days on a rocking chair in her stone house, with little company except her youngest unmarried daughter Maureen (Heather Ehlers), who makes no effort whatsoever to hide her resentment at having to care for her semi-invalid mother. These two have been together for so long that stinging insults are pronounced with dreary boredom: “You’re old, you’re stupid, and you don’t know what you’re talking about,” says Maureen to her mum. And she means it.
Maureen is a woman who has little to look forward to, and even little to be nostalgic about. At 40, she’s done no more than kissed a couple of men, and all the eligible bachelors have gone off to find work in England. When a possible paramour named Pato (Tim Murphy) returns for a brief visit, Maureen brings him home and flaunts him before her mother, who reciprocates by revealing all of Maureen’s dirtiest secrets.
The question is whether Maureen will ever be able to escape this domestic prison, and whether Pato — who refers to Maureen as the beauty queen of Leenane — might provide her with the way out. As the narrative advances, it begins to twist and turn, and the audience is left on edge, uncertain how far these characters might go and not always convinced where our sympathies should lie.
Ehlers and Byrd are both exceptional; they capture the underlying agony of the characters that causes them to lash out at their nearest target, which always happens to be each other. Andrew J. Robinson directs the show with a firm grasp on its darkly comic elements, keeping the events grounded in a psychological reality even as they get weird.
Later on, though, there are important beats that are left a bit muddy and defuse the tension of the writing. Some of the most climactic moments seem under-rehearsed, and may improve over the course of the run. Tim Murphy as Pato gives a nicely unelaborate performance, but Rob King, who plays Pato’s messenger-brother Ray, is never fully convincing.
There isn’t anything deeply ambitious about the dramatic structure here. In one sense, “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” is an old-fashioned drama, combining Ibsen’s use of melodramatic props and O’Casey’s fanciful Irish personalities.
Of course, it’s all updated with more contemporary shock value and liberal use of profanity. If McDonagh doesn’t yet have his predecessors’ depth, he certainly has the talent.