Desperate Living

The Beauty Queen of Leenane presents a mother and daughter as Venus flytraps at each other's throats.

By canceling Tartuffe and booking The Beauty Queen of Leenane, the Great Lakes Theater Festival deserves some kind of medal since, with the savvy substitution of Irish grand guignol stew for French tripe, it has spared its audiences another order of moldy theatre Français. As the Play House recently demonstrated, Moliere tends to metamorphose in English translation from fine Brie to stale limburger.

Artistic Director James Bundy, still fresh out of the wrapper, is already showing signs of lucidity by importing this recent London/New York crowd pleaser. The focus here is a wildly dysfunctional mother-daughter team, tossing venom with an Irish brogue. Saturated in creepy camp, the play microscopically examines the maneuvers of two women who inhabit their dank cottage like two carnivorous plants in the same pot, attempting to suck the life out of each other. It suggests a rural Irish Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Playwright Martin McDonagh, under thirty, is this year's prodigy. He's an Irishman with a mastery for creating a palpable atmospheric bog. Beauty Queen is the first part of a connected trilogy set in the same backwater village. McDonagh's dark, terse, earthy humor echoes Samuel Beckett. His blighted souls wile away their terminally bored hours waiting for the Grim Reaper.

Their concerns are minuscule: an old woman's frustration at the lumps in her porridge; a young villager, stuck between the pubs and telly, bemoaning a decade-old missing tennis ball; an angry daughter who lives to torture her mother by force-feeding her detested biscuits. McDonagh gives us an ignorant, smothered, desperate landscape, steeped in grudges, where kicking a cow can lead to a twenty-year feud. Yet all this is window-dressing. His denizens are not "waiting for Godot"--they live in a world of melodrama.

The slender plot--concerning a frustrated daughter on the edge of insanity and a mother who tenaciously clings to her for creature comforts--is placed in the world of psychological chillers of Ladies in Retirement and Night Must Fall variety.

Underneath all the darkness, the Irish wunderkind is, as New York magazine critic John Simon opined, "a playwright full of every kind of derivativeness, manipulativeness, and shtick." There are those misdelivered letters, a situation that could be rectified by a visit or phone call. A Tennessee Williams spinster can suddenly be transformed into a distaff Norman Bates, whirling her fireplace iron and heating cooking oil for nefarious purposes. The mother is written as a cackling Madame DeFarge, lazy, selfish, and sly, pouring her urine down the drain--a piece of work that could turn Mary Poppins into Lizzie Borden.

James Bundy makes his long-awaited Cleveland directing debut with mixed results. He demonstrates a marked flare for stylishly moving his actors out of the rain into a soggy purgatory. He efficiently sets the atmosphere, but doesn't pull the ropes tight enough. He's blessed in the male half of the cast: Mark Fish's Ray Dooley exudes a balletic frustration and bantam sexuality. His alienated young neighbor suggests an Irish "Jet" without a West Side Story to let off the steam. John Wojda's Pato Dooley is the play's one sweet, kindly character: the neurotic heroine's ticket out of hell, imbuing the evening with an awkward gentleness.

Set designer Johnny Ezell pulls off a small miracle by designing an Irish cottage that, instead of being quaint, suggests a deserted Nazi bunker. Every detail, from the rusty stove to the Fujimura chamber pot, forms a domestic wasteland.

Neither Rene Augesen's psychotic daughter Maureen nor Aideen O'Kelly's mother generates sufficient detail or tension. Augesen is too soft, attractive, and genteel: a road-company Deborah Kerr. Broadway standby O'Kelly still seems to be just standing by. Together, they're unable to generate the life-giving spark to animate this psychological horror show.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane, through May 30 at the Ohio Theatre, Playhouse Square, 1519 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.

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