Good and Dirty

by Cary M. Mazer

The Beauty Queen of Leenane

Philadelphia Theatre Company at Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey St., through June 27, 215-569- 9700

After I first saw Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane (in Garry Hynes’ Druid Theatre production on Broadway), I wanted to take a bath.

It wasn’t just because the play is set in a grimy house in County Galway, Ireland, where the old widowed mother, living with her 40-something single daughter, dumps the contents of her chamber pot in the kitchen sink, on top of the pots and pans. It was more because the central mother-daughter relationship in the play is so suffocating, so hateful, so vindictive and so passive-aggressive that it ultimately propels the principal combatants to acts of total cruelty and horrific violence.

And it didn’t make me feel any cleaner that most of this was also excruciatingly funny.

My flesh crept when I saw Maria Mileaf’s production of the play for the Philadelphia Theatre Company as well. Mag (Isa Thomas) still sits in her rocker by the table, physically capable of walking about the room but forcing her daughter Maureen, and any visitor that walks in the door, to fetch her porridge or turn up the volume on her TV set for her. And Maureen (Alma Cuervo) still darts venomous glances at her mother, tells her that she wishes her dead, and watches as her own life and happiness slip away from her.

The difference here is that, for all their horrifying, manipulative hatred, Mag and Maureen seem to be relatively normal. In the original production, the characters were monstrous — gorgons out of a Greek myth or ogres out of a Grimm fairy tale. Here, they appear, at least, to be just a little eccentric. And that, perhaps, makes their manipulations, their hatred and the actions they finally take all the more horrifying.

The biggest difference is Cuervo. Her predecessor in the role was so battered and dried up that she seemed to have formed a protective carapace; and her sexual awakening, beneath the hands of Pato, the simple and earnest local construction worker returning from his job in England, seemed almost miraculous. But Cuervo is, in everything I’ve seen her do, so glowingly vivacious that her Maureen seems more entrapped than extinguished; and when she comes alive with Pato (here played, with energy and charm, by Boris McGiver), Cuervo glows with such ardor that the play almost becomes a lyrical romantic comedy.

This means that Cuervo has a greater distance to travel to arrive at the horrible acts of vengeance Maureen commits against her monstrous mother. But don’t worry: She gets there, by which point the thought of the night water in the kitchen sink will seem, in comparison, like a refreshing walk in a light rain.

Mileaf directs with swiftness and deftness, finding the humor more in lightness than in monstrousness. And in this lightness the characters — Pato, Pato’s thuggish slacker brother Ray (Liam Craig), Maureen, and even Mag — are, dare I say it, almost charming.

Now, after my second viewing of this terrific play, I’m still left with a gnawing fear that McDonagh, the play’s wunderkind playwright, is, with his precocious command of dramatic suspense, anticipation and reversal, maybe a little too skillful; that he is, perhaps, as passive-aggressively manipulative as his two principal characters; that he is, in short, doing to us what his characters are doing to one another.

And that really makes me want to flee from the theater and wash the play, its world, its characters and its grand- guignol horror off me as quickly and as thoroughly as possible.