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Aisling O'Sullivan and Marie Mullen in The Beauty Queen of Leenane at the  Mark Taper Forum (Photo by Craig Schwartz)
Aisling O’Sullivan and Marie Mullen in The Beauty Queen of Leenane at the Mark Taper Forum (Photo by Craig Schwartz)

The Beauty Queen of Leenane

Reviewed by Deborah Klugman
Mark Taper Forum
Through December 18


In 1998, The Druid Theatre Company’s production of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane won four Tonys, including the award for Best Direction to Garry Hynes (a first for a woman) and one for Best Featured Actress to Marie Mullen. As co-founders of Druid, Hynes and Mullen were the first to secure the rights to the play, premiering it in 1996 in County Galway, West Ireland, where the company is based, and where the story takes place.

Twenty years ago, Mullen played Maureen, an unwed 40-something woman trapped in a horizon-less existence with her unceasingly demanding mother. In this revival she plays mother Mag, a disturbed individual who, with cruel premeditation, does everything in her power to thwart her daughter’s (Aisling O’Sullivan) chances for happiness with a man who cares for her.

Maureen and Mag inhabit a cottage (Francis O’Connor) as chilly and barren as the state of their souls. There are no personal items on the nearly bare shelving, nothing to indicate the touches of home people often invest in their domiciles. Above the interior hangs a large screen from which the outside world can, blurrily, be perceived. It is often raining. And there are some structures suspended above the living area that resemble wrought iron crosses, another reflection of the women’s joyless living.

The obese Mag, a hypochondriac, spends most of her time in a rocker in front of the TV, from which she issues surly demands for her tea, her porridge and a nutritional supplement, Complan. She complains a lot about her bad hand, bad legs and bad back, but Mag can move abruptly and swiftly when she chooses — although this she only does rarely. Tormenting Maureen with requests is more her style and her pleasure.

Mindful of her filial duty, Maureen grits her teeth and hurls back her own insults, meanwhile praying for deliverance, which arrives, just possibly, in the form of Pado Dooley (Marty Rea), a local born-and-bred who’s now living and working in England but has returned for a visit. Pado likes Maureen and calls her the beauty queen of Leenane, despite the world’s judgment that she is more plain than pretty. Maureen likes him back, and when he comes to call, she makes a momentous choice and persuades him to stay the night.

This comes about in the final sequence of Act I, which for my money is the best scene in this production and has a lot to do with Rea’s endearing depiction of a shy but ardent suitor, and the tentative tenderness that (finally) seeps into the story. Prior to that, the bitter backbiting between the women is relentlessly harsh, and a hint of Mag’s crafty ways is divulged when she purposefully neglects to tell Maureen of a party invitation extended to her from Pado’s brother, Ray (Aaron Monaghan), an amiable if somewhat slow-witted Irishman with a gift for gab.

At its best McDonagh’s story should sear your heart, but this production, while polished and professional, is emotionally flat; the Mag we observe is a sharply delineated curmudgeon, but however well Mullen handles the shtick —and she handles it very well — there’s never a doubt we’re watching a play. O’Sulllivan displays more layers, but as with Mullen, it’s a studied performance (at least the one I saw was), and it fails to ferry us to the drama’s heights or to its depths.

Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat. 2:30 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through December 18. (213) 628-2772, Running time: two hours and 15 minutes with an intermission.