'A Skull in Connemara'

Theater Tribe in North Hollywood has done a smashing job on Martin McDonagh's "A Skull in Connemara" -- appropriately enough, since smashing heads (both living and dead varieties) is one of its principal occupations.

Theater Tribe in North Hollywood has done a smashing job on Martin McDonagh’s “A Skull in Connemara” — appropriately enough, since smashing heads (both living and dead varieties) is one of its principal occupations. Stuart Rogers’ Los Angeles premiere production is superbly acted and peerlessly funny, though McDonagh’s distinctive blend of J.M. Synge’s warmth and Quentin Tarantino’s heartlessness may prove too wayward for delicate tastes.

McDonagh is capable of propulsive action, as this year’s Oscar-nominated “In Bruges” and the Taper’s forthcoming “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” attest.

But “Skull” is one of his mood pieces, set in a remote Galway community of mean concerns and meaner temperaments. His garrulous, digressive loafers and biddies swig back rotgut poteen and sink into bleary oblivion as they hash over old grievances.

Call it a bad-mood piece, then. But it’s darlin’ all the same.

Scandal du jour is the long-ago death of Oona Dowd, ruled a drunken-driving accident for which husband Mick (Morlan Higgins) has served his time.

Mick’s annual job is to dig up and dispose of old bones to make room for new. (Even the graveyard is an underachiever.) And now that Oona’s plot is scheduled for rotation, as it were, tongues are wagging: Was her skull bashed in before the car crashed?

Constable Thomas Hanlon (John K. Linton) — besotted by American TV detectives solving cold cases — thinks so. So does his granny Maryjohnny (Jenny O’Hara), though she’s more obsessed with cheating at church bingo and consigning to hell the kids she caught doin’ a wee in the churchyard. (They were only 5 and it was 27 years ago, but it’s the principle of the thing.)

And Thomas’ thick younger brother Mairtin (Jeff Kerr McGivney) doesn’t think much of anything, though his loose tongue and penchant for mischief are the catalysts for chaos when it’s time to smash the exhumed remains into powder, with Oona’s remains gone missing. (Kudos to Gray Creasy for dem bones, by the way.)

The Irish accents are impeccable, but accents are easy. Attitude is what’s hard, and Rogers has captured McDonagh’s desired tone at every juncture. The characters jaw about nonsense until an insult is unveiled or a plot twist inadvertently revealed, at which point we have to be struck by our new awareness even while the everyday banter goes on.

To swing crazily from blue funk to red-hot savagery is a helmer’s dream opportunity, and Rogers’ quartet accomplishes each reversal with consummate finesse. Linton and McGivney perfectly capture the cats-in-a-sack tussle of mismatched brothers, and O’Hara is unimprovable, her face ever squinching up in delight or suspicion.

Mick is the tallest order: a stolid good ol’ fella haunted by the past but very much of the present, required to keep us guessing as to his motives and intentions. Higgins conveys the man’s deepest brooding while carrying out his assigned tasks with a bit o’ fun. As the drink goes to everyone’s heads and his little cottage becomes a shambles, he is the strong, still figure from which our eyes dare not move. It’s a sensational performance.

Sensational, too, is the scene-two transformation of hut into cemetery, a coup by designer Jeff McLaughlin and lighting man Luke Moyer. And Thadeus Frazier-Reed nails every sound effect, from insistent crickets to the subtle snap of a still-hairy skull as it’s detached from an ancient neck.

A Skull in Connemara

Theater Tribe Studio Theater; 39 seats; $20 top

Production

A Theater Tribe presentation of a play in two acts by Martin McDonagh. Directed by Stuart Rogers.

Creative

Sets, Jeff McLaughlin; costumes, Thomas Burr; lighting, Luke Moyer; sound, Thadeus Frazier-Reed; bone artist, Gray Creasy; stage manager, Serein Wu. Opened Jan. 23, 2009. Reviewed Jan. 24. Runs through Feb. 28. Running time: 1 HOUR, 50 MIN.

Cast

Mick Dowd - Morlan Higgins Maryjohnny Rafferty - Jenny O'Hara Mairtin Hanlon - Jeff Kerr McGivney Thomas Hanlon - John K. Linton

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