Written during an enviable period in his mid-twenties that would yield four major productions in two years, Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane transplants the playwright’s mixed feelings about the bucolic Ireland he would visit on holidays while growing up in London into a space of domestic menace.
Forty-year-old virgin Maureen Folan (Aisling O’Sullivan) is trapped in a codependent, mutually destructive relationship with her mother, Mag (Marie Mullen). Mag is able to retain her daughter as caretaker despite her passive aggressiveness and persistent needling. It appears that Leenane is more prison than home; when Maureen half-heartedly attempts to dissuade her neighbor Ray Dooley (Marty Rea) from taking drugs, he replies, “But there are plenty of other things just as dangerous, would kill you just as easy … This bastarding town for one.” The fact that Ms. Mullen played Maureen in the original production only contributes to this feeling of a closed cyclicality.
As in all of Mr. McDonagh’s best plays, Beauty Queen is hysterical, full like Albee’s of barbed household speech and ever-simmering violence. Unlike in Albee, that violence eventually reaches a boil, but before then we are treated to a gorgeous language that possesses more musicality than any by an Irish dramatist since Beckett. This is, of course, praise for both the writer and his actors. Ms. O’Sullivan’s Maureen is exhausted but confident, more sure of her power over her mother than one might expect, while Ms. Mullen exudes paralytic control from her rocking chair, her eyes darting with vulpine glee and her riskier gambits tempered with mock helplessness. Mr. Rea, too, is fantastic, alternately overstaying his welcome and complaining about his presence in their home; his wild gesticulations and childish repetitions—such as, “I don’t want to be here,” timed with the clunking of his head against a table—help balance the tension of the central narrative.
The bad boy of ‘nineties theater, Mr. McDonagh has not tamed in his transition to film work, fulfilling the promise of an enfant terrible informed equally by punk rock and Quentin Tarantino. Still, this revival of his first play reminds us that his spirit of rage, anarchism, and gallows humor has burned with consistent intensity for the last twenty years.