Monday, March 26, 2018

Despite a Solid Rendition at Northlight, Martin McDonagh's 'The Beauty Queen of Leenane' is a Hard Play to Warmly Embrace -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Beauty Queen of Leenane
by Michael McDonagh
directed by BJ Jones
Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL
Thru April 22

Although he is likely now more known for writing and directing movies--including 2016's Oscar-nominated Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri--Irishman Martin McDonagh remains my favorite contemporary playwright.

He gets that nod over David Mamet because the last Mamet play I really like is Oleanna, written in 1992, and I've seen some more recent stage works of his I haven't much cared for.

McDonagh turns 48 today, and his plays The Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Cripple of Inishmaan and The Pillowman are among my favorites by anyone. (In addition to Three Billboards, I also liked his film In Bruges a good deal; Seven Psychopaths not so much.)

Currently, Skokie's excellent Northlight Theatre is staging the first McDonagh play ever to be produced: The Beauty Queen of Leenane, which premiered in 1996 and whose 1998 Broadway production earned four Tony Awards, though not Best Play despite being nominated.

So I would love to tell you I absolutely loved it, much as I had Northlight's 2009 rendition of The Lieutenant of Inishmore.

But this is the second time I've seen The Beauty Queen of Leenane, which focuses on a 40-year-old "spinster" named Maureen (played here by the always terrific Kate Fry), who lives--and constantly bickers, rather acrimoniously--with her mother, Mag (a stellar Wendy Robie).

The only other two characters are the Dooley brothers, Ray (Casey Morris)--who primarily provides comic relief in some bantering with Mag--and Pato (Nathan Hosmer), a contemporary of Maureen's who shows some latent interest in her after 20 years with nary a word between them.

And while McDonagh's sharp dialogue drives a play that is really rather simple at its core--a battling mother & daughter, a bit of fledgling romance--as in the past the whole thing left me a bit underwhelmed.

Which isn't to suggest there's anything notably wrong with Northlight's production, directed by longtime artistic director, BJ Jones.

The acting is stellar, the set design by Todd Rosenthal provides a proper sense of a dingy but likely once rather homey Irish cottage, the 2-hour, 2-act play holds one's interest without dragging.

There's also plenty of McDonagh's trademark black comedy at play, not only in the verbal sparring between Maureen and Mag, but in what eventually unfolds.

But while this is, of course, true of any play or creative enterprise, I think audiences could be well-split by The Beauty Queen of Leenane.

Some may like it, as done here & now, a good bit more than me, appreciating the humanistic nuance within intense script and performances.

Others, however, might be even more turned off, not quite knowing what the point is, or what one is supposed to take away from all the surface-level nastiness.

There's nothing here that lessens my considerable regard for McDonagh, Jones, Fry, Northlight or anyone else involved.

If nothing else, I was glad to see this play again, having only ever done so in a 2011 production by Shattered Globe Theatre (where I awarded @@@@, but barely).

But in attempting to fairly judge The Beauty Queen of Leenane based on what seems like an estimable staging, I'm unable to crown it as one of my favorites.  

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