'Lonesome West' is a laugh-out-loud dramedy
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It has all the apparent ingredients for warm-hearted domestic drama: two unmarried brothers, a pretty young woman and a soulful parish priest; a playwright who's absorbed all the great Irish playwrights from Synge to Beckett to Murphy (plus Sam Shepard's "True West"); a colorful Connemara setting; and a detailed rural cottage that isn't a theatrical set so much as the real thing with a few audience seats wrapped around like wallpaper, making us part of the family.
Then the unexpected mayhem begins.
And the language! The 17-year-old colleen, named, with ironic obviousness, Girleen, would blister the ears off a Dublin cop.
No one is actually murdered, not on stage, but there is death out there in the town of Leenane where the events of the other two-thirds of playwright Martin McDonagh's Leenane trilogy are unfolding simultaneously. The best known is "The Beauty Queen of Leenane (City Theatre, 2000), and if we're lucky, someone will give us "A Skull in Connemara" before too long.
This part of the trilogy is "The Lonesome West," now at the professional Playhouse Rep, and for all its high-decibel goings-on, that hint of desolation is appropriate. Yet "Lonesome West" is a comedy, too -- sometimes grisly and gulp-awful, but laugh-out loud comic. If you aren't laughing, you're either an Irish idolizer who can't take a joke, or maybe you don't think competitive desperation and cruelty are funny.
Even so, you can see how Mr. McDonagh's play mocks the cliches of Irish history, with the crucifix and gun hung together on one wall and a growing collection of figurines of saints on another, their paint blistered by the casual profanity. There are hints of the 1990s, too, led by the abuse crisis in the Irish church.
As Fintan O'Toole says in his introduction to the indispensable Methuen paperback of the trilogy, there's an "unsettling, almost surreal fusion of fable and reportage. ... Dirty realism is continually shading into heightened epic." Call it rural Irish gothic.
But mainly, it's all about family. What else is there, when inherited verities of religion, history and nation are all in question? And no one fights like relatives.
The brothers, Coleman and Valene, a slob and a priss played by Phil Winters and David Cabot, are bound together by a guilty pact you figure out slowly. Mr. Winters, wearing the worst hair ever seen on stage, drives the combat with a dead-on performance, mangy and needy beneath a deadpan exterior. Mr. Cabot's complementary performance is necessarily more florid.
Dave Droxler plays Father Welsh-Walsh-Welsh (they can never get it right) with a nice mix of comic astonishment and underlying despair, while Maggie Ryan's Girleen is so young and cheery her foul mouth is funny without hiding the longing within.
Among playwright McDonagh's many achievements are a battle waged with small bags of crisps (potato chips, we'd say), the most improbable, indirect of love scenes and a lengthy series of apologies -- a secular parody of confession -- that is really anything but.
The play's rhythm of battle and forgiveness, confession and assault, owes a lot to the guiding hand of director Kim Martin. The accomplished set is by Lindsey B. Mayer -- astonishingly, a Point Park junior. Andrew David Ostrowski's lights paint the scene with ironic (and sometimes forboding) allure.
Steve Tolin manages some special effects all the better for the intimacy of the space, and Randy Kovitz directs some wonderful fights. I wouldn't sit in the first row.
But I wouldn't miss a McDonagh play, either, as witness his others seen recently in Pittsburgh, courtesy of Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre: "The Lieutenant of Inishmore" and "The Cripple of Inishmaan" (both from his Aran Islands trilogy) and "Pillowman." What skill with language!
First Published February 17, 2011 12:00 am