- Los Angeles Critic
Just how far does the apple fall from the tree? The Beauty Queen of Leenane, a 1996 black comedy by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, takes a bleak, darkly funny, and occasionally horrifying look at a mutually destructive relationship between mother and daughter. This production, being presented by Center Theatre Group at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, is an import from the Druid, a touring theatre company in Ireland, where the play also had its world premiere back in 1996.
The pedigree of this production is quite impressive. The play enjoyed an acclaimed run on Broadway in 1998, and this version reunites that director, Garry Hynes, who became the first female to win a Tony Award for Best Direction of a Play, and actress Marie Mullen, who won the Best Actress Tony for her performance as Maureen, the daughter, and now plays Mag, the mother.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane takes place in the Irish village of Leenane in a small, run down house occupied by Mag (Mullen) and Maureen (Aisling O’Sullivan). Mag, 70, is extremely dependent on Maureen, refusing to perform even basic tasks for herself, citing various ailments and injuries. Maureen appears understandably exasperated, her entire adult life having been consumed by taking care of her mother. At 40, she is still a virgin, having kissed only two men before. When their neighbor, Ray Dooley (Aaron Monaghan) stops by to invite Mag and Maureen to a party, Mag intentionally does not pass the message along to her daughter, ostensibly not wanting her to have a life beyond their meek existence. Maureen finds out, adds this grievance to the list of things to resent her mother for, and attends the party, even bringing a man, Ray’s older brother Pato (Marty Rea) home with her. He spends the night, which Maureen gleefully throws in Mag’s face the next morning.
From the first couple of scenes, the dynamic seems straightforward—Mag is the manipulative, overbearing one, Maureen the innocent, tortured daughter you are supposed to feel bad for. As more information is revealed, it becomes apparent there is more to the women’s relationship than meets the eye. Maureen’s longing for a life out in the world with Pato drives the action to a horrifying climax, and an ambiguous ending forces you to question the authenticity of everything you’ve just seen.
The tone of this play is rather fascinating. While there are many jokes and moments played for comedy, there are also stomach-churning gross moments, and even instances that border on macabre. I previously saw another play by McDonagh, A Behanding in Spokane, on Broadway in 2010. It had many similar themes, including using humor to mask the more disturbing undertones of the situation.
I have but two critiques of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, which is overall a smart, tense, gripping, well-acted piece. The first is that in the opening scene, the Irish accents were so thick I briefly panicked, worried I would be unable to comprehend half the words. Thankfully, I found I quickly grew used to the unusual speech patterns to the point where it was no longer a problem. Also, while the first act seemed to pass in the blink of an eye, the second felt laborious at times, with a couple of scenes that overstayed their welcome without adding much to the story.
The play’s outlook on family is quite dismal. Maureen sees her mother as a prison, suffocating her and holding her back. Mag depends on Maureen in what becomes a vicious cycle of abuse. The final images are chilling, as you realize the true depths of the mother and daughter’s similarities and wonder if their toxic environment has created a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane runs at the Mark Taper Forum through December 18th. Tickets range from $25-$85 and can be purchased at www.centertheatregroup.org. This engagement is the first stop on a planned US tour—the production will next be seen at BAM in New York, ArtsEmerson in Boston, the August Wilson Center in Pittsburgh, and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Photo Credit: Craig Schwartz