note: entire contents copyright 2001 by G.L. Horton
Will Stackman, bless him, is now writing the majority
of the www.AisleSay.com reviews, giving me the
opportunity to go back to writing plays. But I feel
strongly enough about last week's openings to want go
record re: The Black Comedies.
"The Lonesome West" at Sugan I thought even better than the original Druid Theatre production, which I saw in Galway in 1997. That production was brilliant, vicious vaudeville so ferociously funny that it launched international reputations and won prizes everywhere it played. To say that the Sugan's is even better is praise of the highest order. At first I was relieved that Will was writing the AisleSay review and I wouldn't be the one doing the praising. I've acted with the Sugan myself, and it's no secret that I regard O'Reilly and Co. with affectionate admiration as fine people as well as fine artists, and wish them every success. So I blush to gush. However, although Ed Siegel gives Sugan plenty of praise in Tuesday's Globe, he opines that the Druid production was superior, "more nimble with the nuances". Since like Siegel I'm among the lucky few who have seen both productions, I feel that I should state my opinion to the contrary, and give reasons. I grant that the Boston "Lonesome West" isn't as funny as Galway's. The Druid Theatre has a proscenium stage, and though it is somewhat smaller it has more in common with the Huntington than with the intimate BCA. At the Druid, the warring brothers' performances were physically and vocally HUGE, and like the black humor of McDonagh's threats and curses, thrilling in their extremity. This thrill even had a whiff of danger in it: I sat in the balcony, and was half afraid it would come crashing down when, SRO, it literally shook with laughter! The longest, loudest laughter was at the jokes that I, as an American, didn't get: the targets were local, Irish notions of Irishness. I don't claim that Billy Meleady and Colin Hamell are better than the two who played the brothers in Galway. Those two were magnificent. But as in the New Rep's "The Weir", Meleady and Hamell together are the equals of the best actors I've ever seen. They gave me chills; made my hair stand on end. The Druid company's Father Welsh was certainly as skilled an actor as Boston's Barlow Adamson, but the Irish actor's matinee idol looks and soap opera sensitivity seemed to have wandered into Leenane from a different, and cozier, world. When the priest served as straight man for the brawling brothers, this "otherness" was fine. But in Galway the priest's "love scene" with Girleen by the water had an undertow of sentimentality that was in strong contrast to the remainder of the play. Consequently, the brothers' attempt to live up to Father Welsh's "faith" in them felt more like an arbitrary plot device than a motivated possibility. I remember that after applauding till my hands were sore I turned to the writer next to me and said (the joke's on us) "If McDonagh had brought this script in to Playwrights' Platform, we'd have told him that priest scene needs a rewrite!" But at the Sugan, there's a wee streak of sentimentality visible all the way through "Lonesome", and quiet wry chuckles of recognition alternate with the belly ripping roars. The play takes on a more satisfying shape, and is more a fitting culmination for the whole Leenane Trilogy. Best of all for an American audience, out local Irish-American theatre gives us a "Lonesome West" almost as much about Us as it is about The Backward Sex Starved Rural Irish.
On the Other Hand: I had neither seen nor read "Betty's Summer Vacation" before I went to the Huntington opening. I'd heard good things about the play from people who had, and I've enjoyed Durang's plays in the past, so I went expecting to like it-- or at least to find it brilliant, if not my cup of tea. But for me, "Betty" was painful and sad. I didn't find its jokes amusing, or clever, or incisive, or anything but hateful and assaultive. I reacted to the show's laugh track the way Betty did: "Who ARE those people, and why are they laughing at things that aren't funny?" As with sitcom laugh tracks, I found the "inappropriate" laughter so annoying that I could scarcely pay attention to what the characters were saying. Then I noticed that the audience around me was divided into people who were as almost grim faced as I and people, mostly young and mostly male, who were screaming with laughter and whooping approval. This, of course, is an intensely uncomfortable divide. I mused on my middle aged obsolescence. Then I noticed how much Keith, the abused child/serial killer, resembles authorial stand-in characters in other Durang plays -- Durang actually performed one of them on stage himself, in NYC. Keith, like poor sweet Betty, can't stand people. Being around loud needy people is intolerably stressful. (agreed) Keith's response, however, is to kill them and play with their body parts. We are sitting at a play watching severed body parts being played with, to screams of laughter. The track's Laughers tumble out of the ceiling, 3 Godlike Beings in a malevolent version of Brecht's in "The Good Person", demanding to be entertained, analyzing comedy like critical theorists, urging the characters on to more outrage, more violence, passing out approval labeled as morality. Wealthy permissive NYC's culture seems to incubate monsters even more effectively than deprived and Lonesome Leenane's. Finally, Keith and co. condemn themselves to murder-suicide, blowing up the summer cottage. The play ends with Betty alone, a dazed survivor on a moonlit shore with the burning ruins in the distance-- a scene all too reminiscent of the aftermath of the WTC attack. If the puritanical Holy Warriors are looking for evidence that America is utterly corrupt and should be destroyed before its Globalizing media infect the entire world, "Betty" could be Exhibit A. That's not funny. At least, it isn't to me.