Martin McDonagh’s 1996 play “The Beauty Queen of Lenane” was the first of half a dozen scripts to come pouring out of McDonagh during a particularly prolific period back in the mid-’90s, when his voice served as a fresh disruption to British theater. Now, as director Garry Hynes restages it at L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum two decades after winning a Tony for doing so on Broadway, this Druid Theatre Company revival offers a delicious opportunity: Marie Mullen, who originated the role of the show’s put-on daughter, now returns as her tyranical mother.
Though on-stage sprinkler suggest the rainy weather outside, this biting black comedy never leaves the dreary bunker of a home fashioned by set designer Francis O’Connor to look like the cement-walled prison that it is for 40-year-old Maureen Folan (Aisling O’Sullivan). Maureen has two other sisters, but they have gone off and gotten married, leaving the burden of tending to her miserable old mum, Mag (Mullen), to her, and McDonagh delights in revealing the routine power struggle between the two, as illustrated by the daily tug-of-war over how and when to serve her Complan, a powdered chicken soup. It’s an absurd bit of comedy, which simultaneously serves to reveal character and kill time.
Once rendered miserable by Mag’s demands, actress Mullen has the sadistic pleasure of playing the needy old biddy — which she does, her body language suggesting a mole or some other sort of underground creature, bent over, brows drooping over beady eyes, hair thinned into a bald spot in the back. It’s almost as good as getting a version of “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” in which Bette Davis and Joan Crawford swap parts, and it adds a meta-textual chuckle to the line, “The exact fecking image of your mother you are!” when neighbor Ray Dooley (Aaron Monaghan) finds Maureen sitting in Mag’s rocker.
Ray’s older brother Pato (Marty Rea) is Maureen’s only real hope to leave Leenane, and it is he that flatters her with the nickname that doubles as the play’s title. Maureen is no conventional beauty, but Pato sees something in her that suggests a possible happily ever after for them both. But then, he hasn’t spent much time with her — and neither have we, as McDonagh reveals in the second act, once details of her mental breakdown mix with actions of increasing desperation.
Mostly we want a better life for Maureen. Meanwhile, it’s hard to sympathize overly with Mag, who begins one scene by emptying a chamber pot full of yellow liquid into the kitchen sink, and who has a bad habit of tossing any note left by one of Maureen’s gentlemen callers into the turf-burning stove. The play’s most suspenseful scene hinges on the fate of one such letter, which Pato has ordered his brother to place directly into Maureen’s hands.
As McDonagh’s first play, “Beauty Queen” proves somewhat tamer than those that were to follow, and yet there’s a melancholy to it that feels more sincere than the often ruthless black comedy that would become his trademark (pushed further still by his brother, “Calvary” writer-director John Michael McDonagh). Still, the sinister undercurrent is there, breaking through late in the show with a twist that still manages to shock.
At just the moment when a gruesome murder seems destined to occur, Ray Dooley discovers a ball Maureen confiscated from him a decade earlier — it’s the source of a grudge he’s never let go. These characters may be Catholics (the set is flanked with framed religious pictures on every wall, plus a diptych of the Kennedy brothers), but they’re not terribly keen on forgiveness. Resentment has a long fuse in Leenane, and though McDonagh characters don’t get out much, they have quite a way of solving their own problems.