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I remember a conversation with a critic in early 1998, when Martin McDonagh’s THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE and THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN were about to open in respectively on and off-Broadway.

“Weeee’ll see what he’s all about,” said the critic in his most supercilious voice, drunk with his own power to give a thumbs-up or — more likely considering his delight in being, as he said, “a hard marker” – a decisive thumbs-down.

Well, that critic has been out of work for more than eight years now. Since his condescending remark, McDonagh has had five more works on Broadway — most of which have been nominated for Best Play Tonys – as well as three Drama Desk Award nominations that resulted in one win. And let’s not forget McDonagh’s Oscar, although it was “only” for a Short Subject.

So we have indeed seen what McDonagh is all about. Let’s be glad, too, that we can again see the play that launched his illustrious career: THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE is currently at BAM’s Harvey Theater in Brooklyn.

It’s a play that will never be confused with I REMEMBER MAMA, for Maureen, a fortyish but not-so-old maid, would certainly like to forget her mother Mag. Considering what we see of the harridan, no one can blame her.

Mag is a septuagenarian nag-hag who expects Maureen to wait on her hand and foot, brain and everything in between. Mag peppers her commands with complaints, from the consistency of her breakfast to her health. She wants her tea, yes, but she craves sympathy, too, calling herself “an old woman” whenever Maureen doesn’t meet her every desire. Mag also disgusts Maureen (and she’ll revolt you, too) in the way she deals with a yellow substance that’s lately been in the news …

So there she is, sitting in her chair as if it were a throne, never moving – until Maureen leaves and she needs something. That’s when she close-to-effortlessly gets up and not-slowly-at-all strolls to get what she wants. Yes, this devil can walk to suit her purpose.

All this and more makes her child sharper than a serpent’s rows of teeth. Wouldn’t you be too if you had to live with this? In SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, Sondheim has the nurse assigned to George’s mother sing “Sunday with someone’s dotty mother is better than Sunday with your own … tending to his, though, is perfectly fine. It pays for the nurse that is tending to mine.” Alas, it’s not just Sunday but seven days a week for Maureen, so the exasperation bursts out of her with the force of champagne uncorked by a novice bottle-opener. This is a relationship where the word “symbiosis” need not apply.

One of Maureen’s nicest moments with her mother occurs when she sharply takes away Mag’s food and drink while the woman is still mid-meal. And before you can think “Oh, he must have meant WORST moments,” no, I did not. Maureen will do much, much worse as BEAUTY QUEEN continues. Any time she gets a chance to anger or scandalize Mag, she’ll seize it as if it were she would a life preserver thrown to her from a sinking ship.

Despite the oversized picture of The Virgin Mary over the door, we see that Mag and Maureen’s Irish Catholic values only go about as far as an arthritic turtle on a slippery slope. Considering what Maureen does to punish Mag, director Garry Hynes should make the woman scream far louder than she does. Or is the subdued shrieking another way of showing that Mag is a pretty tough bird?

Ah, but Mag has something on Maureen and she’ll use it when she feels she must. She goes off stage to find a paper to prove her point and returns with the assurance of a lawyer who’s never lost. While she’s offstage for such a stretch of time, you may find yourself laughing at the thought of her frantically searching for the evidence. That’s how well McDonagh has drawn the character; she doesn’t even have to be there for us to be thinking about her.

Unlike most playwrights who painstakingly show a soft moment for even the most villainous of their characters, McDonagh doesn’t give Maureen a single sentimental iota in the entire two-and-a-half hour running time. He doesn’t just indicate that there’s no love lost; there’s no love at all and there may never have been any. If there were statistics on the greatest amount of time a play has ever had its two lead characters scowling, BEAUTY QUEEN would be king.

Something must break the monotony, and that’s where Pato Dooley literally comes in. For a while, we see – especially through Marty Rea’s earnest performance – that Pato needs conversation with Maureen far more than sex. However, the morning after he’s felt his masculine oats, he strolls around in front of Mag with the assurance that even a genuine son-in-law wouldn’t have.
Rea also does well by a later monologue that has Pato “write” a letter in which he embarrassedly admits he’s not good at correspondence. From what we hear, we must agree.

Then there’s Pato’s younger brother Ray, who plays a not-at-all incidental part. The character’s voice must often go high whether it be from surprise, confusion or outrage. Aaron Monaghan certainly meets the shrill-pitched requirements to the point where he’d be welcome in FALSETTOS.

“A whole afternoon I’m wasting here,” Ray grouses — and just as we’re wondering, “Yeah, and what would you be doing otherwise?” he tells us what his plans were. They only confirm our suspicions that life is what Ray simply does while he’s waiting to die.

Playing Mag is Marie Mullen, who portrayed Maureen in the original Broadway production. Believing that this is the same woman isn’t easy, for Mullen has allowed herself to look like the wrath of God down to a distended and unhealthy-looking stomach. Let’s instead assume she more resembles the replication of her headshot in the program.

Although Mullen saw first-hand the Tony-winning Anna Manahan do the role for hundreds of performances, she hasn’t borrowed much at all from the now-deceased actress. Mullen has a distinctly different vocal style which she uses to have Mag get (or tries to get) what she wants. Let’s call her approach one that embraces gray comedy, as opposed to the black comedy that Manahan brought to the part.

Aisling O’Sullivan has inherited Mullen’s original role and does it fine justice. She has a suck-a-lemon face that wondrously conveys Maureen’s utter amorality – at least where her mother is concerned. Lest we think that’s all the humanity she can muster, O’Sullivan can be invitingly erotic when Pato comes on the scene.

One caveat about all four performers: Mag’s breakfast food can’t be nearly as thick as their Irish accents. Although everyone is ostensibly speaking English, you may find the dialogue in the opening scene to be close to inscrutable; soon, though, your ears may well adjust to the cadences and words and you’ll probably be okay.

That’s not a promise, though. Some theatergoers may dart their eyes far above the stage, not just looking to heaven in prayer that they’ll soon understand what everyone’s saying, but also hoping that supertitles will be blazing above the proscenium.

Alas, none are to be found. Whatever dialogue you do wind up hearing, however, will make you laugh and gasp. You’ll be glad to know what THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE and Martin McDonagh are all about.