Gordon Edelstein’s pungent and impeccably acted production notwithstanding, there’s not much real theatrical flesh on the bones of “A Skull in Connemara,” the second play in Martin McDonagh’s Leenane Trilogy and the last to be seen in New York.
New visitors to the peculiar world of this gifted young playwright may well be seduced by the lurid charms of McDonagh’s prickly Irish grotesques and his intricate, macabre sense of plotting. But these superficial — if tasty — pleasures and the dedicated work of a flawless cast are essentially the whole show here. Theatergoers who have spent a wee bit of time with these types before will find that “Skull” is closer to the hollow cartoon of “The Lonesome West” than the more haunting “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” the finest of the trilogy by some measure.
Once again we find ourselves in the backwater bog of Leenane, in a dank room furnished with a big wooden table and just a few other mismatched scraps. The scent of strong drink hangs in the air alongside a pervading sense of loneliness. This gloom, thick as the moss that covers the graves looming above David Gallo’s clever set, is enlivened only by the sparks of petty bile that flash constantly between a small cast of characters. Prior visitors to Leenane may accurately guess that these animosities will eventually ignite acts of monstrous violence.
The room is home to Mick Dowd (Kevin Tighe, unrecognizable as a paramedic from TV’s long-ago “Emergency”), an elderly widower whose chief occupation is digging up graves in the local cemetery and disposing of the old bones to make way for new ones. His first visitor is Maryjohnny Rafferty (Zoaunne LeRoy), a busybody who keeps Mick company of an evening in exchange for a few sips of “poteen,” the hooch that Leenane locals drink like water.
She’s followed by her grandson Mairtin (Christopher Carley), a ne’er-do-well with a surprise in his pocket that adds some spring to his step: He’s been recruited by the local priest, Father Walsh (a significant character in “Lonesome West,” McDonagh completists will recall), to help Mick out with his ghoulish chores. This may well be because Mick’s task this season will include digging up his own wife’s grave. Also to be unearthed, if Mairtin and his dimwitted cop brother, Thomas (Christopher Evan Welch), have their way, will be revelations about her death during a car accident some years before, when Mick was drunk behind the wheel.
The characters in “A Skull in Connemara” are amply supplied with the vivid phraseology, trivial obsessions and festering grievances endemic to all of McDonagh’s tribe, but these seemed more consistently entertaining the first (or second) time around. The peevish squabbling among this quartet over local history and their various idiosyncrasies — Maryjohnny’s bingo and her special pens, Mairtin’s cooking of a hamster in science class, Thomas’ cravings to see black crimes where none exist — seems to drag on endlessly.
Rather than illuminating any depths in the characters, these meandering, testy exchanges serve only to illustrate McDonagh’s undeniable gift for spinning absurd comic riffs from the most implausible and grotesque material. There are potent laughs here (“You’re the one who started with the insults,” clarifies Thomas at one point, “I was the one who started with the vague insinuations”), but for the first time at a McDonagh play, I began to see the merits in arguments that McDonagh traffics in artificial stereotypes of Irish backwoods types; characters here come close to being less salubrious Irish versions of the country boys from “The Dukes of Hazzard.”
This is particularly true in the play’s final third, when petty insults have been exchanged for violent assaults. Tighe brings a probing, quiet humanity to his performance as Mick that is more or less negated when he’s required to perform (offstage, mercifully) an act of bloody revenge. With his mole-like eyes glinting suspiciously from behind a fringe of greasy hair, Welch’s Thomas exudes a smoldering enmity that will also find release in a gruesome attack (onstage, unmercifully). More lighthearted, if such a word can be used to describe anything in these whereabouts, are the expertly calibrated comic turns of LeRoy and Carley, who, like Tighe and Welch, employ fine Irish accents.
Indeed, director Edelstein’s production, first seen at his home base, Seattle’s A Contemporary Theater, boasts a fine sense of local color in all its particulars — the local colors here being strictly blood-red and black-comic — but it cannot supply what’s missing from McDonagh’s play: the soul and spirit that give purposeful life to drama as well as human flesh.