The rain comes down in sheets, the grime is thick on the walls, the acrimony in the squalid room is even thicker, and the loneliness is palpable. Sound familiar? We’re back in the unlovely Irish backwater that served as a bleak backdrop for last season’s sleeper hit “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” a compellingly lurid comedy-drama that announced the arrival of a distinctive new Anglo-Irish playwright, Martin McDonagh.
A year has now passed, and McDonagh’s “The Lonesome West,” the third play in his Leenane trilogy (“Beauty Queen” was the first), has also made the unlikely trek from the small Druid Theater in Galway, Ireland, to Broadway, by way of London’s Royal Court. And while the production, directed by Tony-winning “Beauty Queen” helmer Garry Hynes, is marked by the same fastidious affection for McDonagh’s rhythmic, colorful language and bizarre comic characterizations, the play itself is rather small beer, to put it in terms the play’s booze-obsessed characters would appreciate. A more grotesque, gender-switched variation on themes and situations not unlike those of “Beauty Queen,” “The Lonesome West” strains the limits of one’s ability to find squalor entertaining.
While “Beauty Queen” depicted the corrosive emotional combat between a mother and daughter, the two characters locked in a protracted battle of wills in this case are brothers Coleman and Valene Connor, played respectively by Maeliosa Stafford and Brian F. O’Byrne (in a role vastly different from his tender Tony-nominated turn in “Beauty Queen”).
O’Byrne’s Valene has the pale moon face of a sickly child, and his behavior indicates some kind of arrested development. His face is forever contorted in a grimace of sneering malice or abject fear, while his actions have a rodent-like furtiveness. The obsessions that manage to fill his days include an ever-expanding collection of tacky plaster and china saints and subscriptions to a variety of the lower-brow women’s magazines. His diet consists of vodka and a brand of potato chips that, like much else in his life, seems to be chosen expressly to annoy his brother Coleman.
The cynical, cooler Coleman is more recognizably human, although having shot and killed their father would have to be seen as a larger demerit than Valene’s quirky pettiness (giant black V’s are scrawled on virtually everything in the room, indicating Valene’s ownership). The play opens on the day of the late patriarch’s funeral, as the local priest Father Welsh (David Ganly) joins Valene and Coleman in their glum, gray sitting room-cum-kitchen for a wee drink from Valene’s carefully secreted stash.
Although the brothers have just buried their dad, it’s Father Welsh who’s in need of comfort. He’s riddled with self-doubts after the violent death of yet another of his parishioners (there are allusions to the murder in “Beauty Queen” and “A Skull in Connemara,” the second Leenane play). Coleman comforts him, in blackly comic terms that typify McDonagh’s acrid humor: “You’re a bit too weedy and you’re a terror for the drink and you have doubts about Catholicism. Apart from that you’re a fine priest. Number one you don’t go about abusing 5-year-olds, so, sure, doesn’t that give you a head start over half the priests in Ireland?”
Two more inhabitants of Leenane will be dead by their own hand before “The Lonesome West” ends, but the play never works up the harrowing dramatic force that “Beauty Queen” managed to achieve, despite that play’s equal doses of savage comedy. In “The Lonesome West” McDonagh spends so much time serving up his characters’ subhuman behavior that their humanity gets utterly lost. And the vile business that defines them often seems to be more concocted for our delectation than truthfully observed. Even Father Welsh, the play’s most sympathetic character, is subjected to such intense and frequently amusing scorn by the brothers (and by extension the playwright) that it’s hard to be moved by his miserable fate.
Because Valene and Coleman never engage our sympathy the way Maureen and her repulsive but desperately needy mother did in “Beauty Queen,” the revelations that lead to the play’s violent climax have little resonance. The primal mix of love and hate and need brought blisteringly to life in “Beauty Queen” is more shallowly and perfunctorily conceived here. (And the most wounding discovery — that Valene was responsible for Coleman missing his one chance at love — is the exact same tragedy on which the previous play turned, though here it’s more preposterously comic than wrenching.) Eventually, as the brothers’ increasingly violent acts of retribution drive the plot forward, the play begins to resemble a “Road Runner” cartoon crossed with Sam Shepard’s “True West,” also a wild west comedy about fraternal angst. Funny, yes, but eventually monotonous.
Whatever the play’s inherent weaknesses, Hynes’ production is impeccably choreographed and played — the performers clearly relish the rich textures of McDonagh’s language. Byrne has the showiest part and makes a memorably distasteful figure of the resentful Valene. Stafford’s Coleman is a fine and subtle piece of work, with his lazy air of nonchalance bursting into sudden, methodical explosions of violence. Ganly has a studied, mournful charm as the forever-doubting Father Welsh, but he doesn’t quite bring the depth of feeling to the role that would give the play enough emotional ballast to balance the brothers’ grotesquerie. The play’s fourth character, the father’s secret admirer Girleen, is played with affecting simplicity by Dawn Bradfield.
There is also fine work from the play’s designers, but it only accents a sense of deja vu — Francis O’Connor’s set could be the very one from “Beauty Queen.” In the end this second visit to Leenane compares unfavorably to the more rewarding first. And it’s not likely to leave Broadway audiences hungering for a third.