by Martin McDonagh
Directed by Jackie Maxwell
Starring Benedict Campbell and Randy Hughson
at CanStage/Bluma Appel Theatre until February 9
27 Front Street East/416-368-3110 or

Reviewed by Joel Greenberg

The Lonesome West is the third play in Martin McDonagh's Leenane trilogy. (The Beauty Queen of Leenane and A Skull in Connemara are parts one and two.) We meet Valene (Benedict Campbell) and Coleman (Randy Hughson) just after they have buried their father. As they whine and hurl abuse at each other, Coleman reveals that he shot their father in the head because the old guy didn't have a nice thing to say about his son's hair. That the admission is made without apology or coercion is central to the tone and form of the play. We are once again in remote and uncivilized Ireland and the people are feckin' this and feckin' that, all of them tied in emotional and spiritual knots that snap back in their faces without warning. The play is a dark comedy that teases the audience because, for the most part, we don't know when to laugh and when to be stunned into silence. McDonagh knows very well what he is doing and he does it very well indeed.

Hiss gift as a playwright is both in creating unlikely characters and fashioning dialogue that suits them as much as it makes audiences laugh. In McDonagh's hands, Leenane is a world apart, a place where the walking dead and the buried dead commingle. There is no respect due anyone or anything, and at the same time words like 'respect' emerge as actions rather than passive pieties. The brothers Connor are as bizarre and remote as any stage characters I know, save perhaps those from the world of Sam Shepard. (The resemblance between McDonagh and Shepard is striking, the younger Brit influenced by the aging American icon of once-upon-a-time-in-the-West mythology.)

The Beauty Queen of Leenane, which catapulted the playwright to international attention, is generally regarded as the best of the three plays because its plot, however melodramatic and sentimental it becomes, contains people that we care about. In The Lonesome West we enjoy the antics of the brothers, though 'enjoy' might be the wrong word. We are intrigued and occasionally repelled. But we never get too close to any of the characters because they have little to tell each other or us. Had McDonagh cared to restrict his play to the two men, their story, told might be the superior. But the two additional characters, Father Welsh and Girleen, fail to land as much more than plot devices and comic relief. (The one false note in McDonagh's writing is the far-too-oft-repeated joke of mispronouncing the priest's name. Isn't there some unspoken rule in comedy, or even in life, that five or six repetitions of anything is a bad idea?) When Girleen tells the brothers about what has happened to Welsh, the tone of both story and character shift suddenly and for no apparent reason other than to move the action forward. But the play is not at its best when it focuses on action, except as it applies to character revelations.

Sue LePage has designed a set that serves the play well but one which serves the theatre even better. Only the recent Picasso at the Lapin Agile has succeeded in restricting the expansive Bluma Appel Theatre stage space as ably as LePage does here, and for this considerable achievement she deserves attention. And yet, in spite of her sensitivity to the text and the performers, the actors are most often so conscious of projecting their voices that the monotonous volume and exerted energy tear away at the characters and the relationships between them. Of the four actors, only Campbell resists the over-amplified attack that eventually does in the other three.

In London's West End in 1997, McDonagh was the hottest name in decades. He had four plays running concurrently. Though we have yet to see work other than his Leenane plays here in Toronto, how I long for a play in which his characters can interact without the charm of their dialects and the sogginess of their homes forever getting the way. 

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