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Funny, Bitter, Powerful, Unforgettable: “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” at the Taper

Aisling O’Sullivan and Marie Mullen in the Druid production of "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" by Martin McDonagh, directed by Garry Hynes. [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

Aisling O’Sullivan and Marie Mullen in the Druid production of “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” by Martin McDonagh, directed by Garry Hynes. [Photo: Craig Schwartz]


There seems to be a pattern in modern Irish drama – one both constructed (in part) by and reflected in the work of playwright Martin McDonagh – of developing characters of great richness and charm, in situations which can appear darkly humorous until these same characters prove invested with fantastically fatal flaws. Such a work is “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” just opened at the Mark Taper Forum.

This production by the Druid theater company of Galway, features essential elements of their premiere of the work in the 1990s: from director, and Druid Artistic Director, Garry Hynes (the first woman to win a Tony for directing, for the New York production of this piece), to award-winning actress Marie Mullen, who created one role in the original production and returns to play another. Add to this strong new performances by from Druid regulars, and you have a work steeped in modern Irish thought and culture, filled with unforgettable characters recognizable as funny, infuriating, and, on occasion, grippingly awful.

Maureen Folan, in her 40s, is the sole caregiver to her somewhat hypochondriacal and seriously manipulative mother, Mag. At a celebration nearby, she reconnects with the elder of two brothers from a neighboring farm, Ray, and begins to dream about a life outside of the drudgery of her current situation. Mag’s interference brings up implications both imaginary and real, as Ray’s immature younger brother Pato is called upon to act as go-between when Ray returns to work in England. Each of these connections, fraught with friction, may lead to either happiness or terror.

Central to the piece is Aisling O’Sullivan’s Maureen, edgy and consistently, sharply, seething with resentments. Balancing this sharpness is the wry charm, and devious maneuvering of Mullen’s Mag, the sort of full-body performance (oh, those facial expressions) one can easily recognize as remarkable. Indeed, she manages to make the audience like Mag and despise her all at once.

Aaron Monaghan creates, in Ray, an open, decent man whose straightforward nature provides a profound contrast to the roiling complexities of the Folan household. As the character often central to the comic relief, Marty Rea’s Pato radiates a constant restless energy and an obtuse, silly and selfish view of things which balances out the tensions and deviousness of the rest of the play.

Hynes knows these characters from long acquaintance, bringing an organic feel to the play as if it rises out of its very setting, Francis O’Connor’s decayingly gray country cottage. The aura of looming darkness and the moments of lighthearted humor seem likewise to have a sense of natural flow, and her respect for the language itself and the rich roundness of the characters brings with it a deep humanity which connects across all barriers of culture and framework.

Like other great works examining the affect of fatal flaws on humankind, from Chekhov to Miller, “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” reflects a potential truth far beyond its context, yet in this case uses the specifics of Irish life, accent and cultural framework to create something at once pointed in its beauty and disturbing in its implications. This is, in short, a true work of art, both as written and as performed.

This is the first stop on Druid’s U.S. tour of this production.

What: “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” When: through December 18, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. No performance on Thanksgiving Where: The Mark Taper Forum, at the Music Center 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $85 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.centertheatregroup.org

The Taper’s “The Price”: The play may have issues, but the acting’s a treat

John Bedford Lloyd and Sam Robards square off in Arthur Miller's The Price at the Taper [photo: Craig Schwartz]

John Bedford Lloyd and Sam Robards square off in Arthur Miller’s The Price at the Taper [photo: Craig Schwartz]


It depends on what matters to you in a theatrical production as to whether Arthur Miller’s “The Price” at the Mark Taper Forum will meet or disappoint your expectations. If you enjoy watching peak-quality actors create and run around in characters created by one of the rarest talents of the 20th century, you’re in for a treat. If you’re looking for greatness in the script itself, well, there is a reason “The Price” isn’t the play which trips off the tongue at mention of Miller’s name.

The tale has two vastly differing segments, divided by an intermission. Both take place in the apartment of a once-influential, rich man who lost everything in the stock market crash of 1929. Now, in the mid-sixties, he has died, his whole apartment building is due to be razed, and his sons – one the disappointed career cop who helped to support him, the other a successful surgeon who left him behind – must either take or sell what remains of his household goods.

Alan Mandell provides the comedy in The Price [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Alan Mandell provides the comedy in The Price [photo: Craig Schwartz]

The first segment is high on a kind of practical comedy, as Walter, the cop, must joust both with is frustrated wife and with the clever, if ancient Gregory Solomon – the furniture appraiser he has called to bid on the apartment’s contents. The second opens raw wounds, as the surgeon, Victor, appears radiating a sense of command and of the rightness of his more youthful actions. Through it all, Walter’s wife underscores the importance of money in all of this, and in her evaluation of them both.

The true star of the Taper production is Alan Mandell, whose Solomon radiates with the practical combination of earnest wisdom and manipulative coercion which makes for a good salesman. He makes the comedy this character represents organic to the play, a seamlessness far harder than it looks.

Kate Burton is the long-suffering wife [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Kate Burton is the long-suffering wife [photo: Craig Schwartz]

John Bedford Lloyd gives Walter the earnest solidity one expects from a lifelong cop and the seething resentment of a man who feels forced to abandon his own dreams by those who would not abandon theirs. Sam Robards’ Victor embodies the confidence of a man broken by his own success, yet still radiating with an inner focus which makes him appear unbending even as he reaches out. Kate Burton, as the disappointed Esther, makes her a dreamer with practical roots, trying hard to find meaning in a life she did not choose.

Matt Saunders’ surreal yet fascinating set design allows the stage area to shrink into a tiny space where all the characters collide not only with themselves but with the dead father whose innate presence and actions are the elephant in the room. Director Garry Hynes acts as choreographer, moving characters in and out of center focus with the precision of a gavotte, and keeping the whole thing both earnest and to some extent underplayed – a great way to feel the tensions rise.

Still, “The Price” as a play has its flaws, seeming almost two one-acts kind of sewn together. Even so, the performances are so strong they become worth the adventure all by themselves. In particular, a chance to catch Mandell is particularly worth the trip. Last seen at the Taper in “Waiting for Godot,” in a part he originated for Samuel Beckett, he is a remarkable talent proven over an 80-year acting career.

What: “The Price” When: Through March 22, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave in downtown Los Angeles How Much $25 – $85 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.centertheatregroup.org

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