Last year, also around St. Patrick’s Day, South Coast Rep presented Martin McDonagh’s “Beauty Queen of Leenane,” a nasty thriller of a play about a hateful Irish mother and daughter. Now the theater stages “The Lonesome West,” another in McDonagh’s trilogy depicting the residents of rural County Galway (the third, “A Skull in Connemara,” recently landed in New York), where there’s so little to do that personal insults become a sport. With strong performances from Paul O’Brien and Rod McLachlan as brothers who enjoy nothing more than getting the other’s goat, “The Lonesome West” lives up to the mean-spiritedness of “Beauty Queen,” and while it doesn’t offer as many surprises and ultimately isn’t as disturbingly affecting, it’s even (bleeping) funnier.
As the play opens, the adult Connor boys, Coleman (O’Brien) and Valene (McLachlan), have buried their poor old dad, whom Coleman shot (accidentally, we’re told) in the head. The young parish priest, alcoholic Father Welsh (J. Todd Adams), offers what counsel he can, but his presence at their modest home, designed simply and nicely by Angela Balogh Calin, does nothing to keep the brothers from going at it, first verbally, then physically.
Coleman is the older and smarter one, but Valene has “control of the pursestrings,” and he has no intention of letting his brother forget it. Every time Coleman wants a drink, which is pretty much always, or a “crisp,” he has to suffer the indignity of either stealing it or begging his younger sibling. Valene, meanwhile, should know better than to leave his beloved religious figurines unattended, since they provide an awfully easy target for Coleman’s rage. The dynamics are such that any exchange between the brothers inevitably leads to name-calling — the favorite being “virgin fecking gay boy” — and threats of murder.
Under Martin Benson’s direction, the actors deliver the performances at full pitch, and the constant unpleasantness provides plenty of darkly humorous pleasure. Fight coordinator Jamison James deserves credit for making the physical portions of the play just realistic enough not to slow things down, and there’s a nice silliness to their wrestling matches as well.
McDonagh tries to add a soulful element, in the form of Father Welsh and the young Girleen (Amy Chaffee), who has a crush on the insecure priest. But again, the comedy here is much more memorable than the efforts at anything deeper. Father Welsh has one crisis of faith after another, and laments that his is a parish where “God seems to have no jurisdiction.” His agonizing unhappiness isn’t all that affecting, though, and McDonagh plays that self-pitying note too many times. Adams and Chaffee are good, but when the second act begins with a long scene between them, it’s hard not to wish these characters a speedy send-off so we can return to the vulgar quarreling of the Connor family.
O’Brien and McLachlan are particularly well cast as brothers, and they impressively sustain the entertainment value of the repetitive fighting. They’re even funnier when they have to start trying to be nice to each other, which goes so comically against their natures that it’s like watching two guard-dogs trying not to bark at an intruder.