Thursday, July 2, 2009

The other 40-year-old virgin

Playwright Martin McDonagh pulls a bait-and-switch on the audience in his The Beauty Queen of Leenane — the Banyan Theater’s season opener. Bait-and-switch as in he promises one thing, then sells you another. The damn thing is, it works.

In the first act, you think you’re watching one of those repressed-woman-finally-blossoms plays. Sure and it’s set in a crappy town in Ireland in the 1990s. The central character, Maureen Folan, is a 40-year-old spinster who’s been trapped in a miserable, sexless existence taking care of her poisonous mother. Then, an old love interest shows up. They connect, and it’s very touching. He wants to take her to America with him. You figure, after a complication or two, he finally will.

It doesn’t work out that way. In the second act — let’s just say Maureen has something in common with Norman Bates. And I don’t mean a deep love for mother. The playwright’s dropped hints. But he tricked me into liking his character, so I ignored the hints. When Maureen does a bad, bad thing, I didn’t see it coming — and I usually expect bad things. Maybe the rest of the audience did, but I doubt it.

It's a shocker, but the playwright (who was 26 when he wrote this) pulls it off. Presto-chango! Frustrated-but-Goodhearted Maureen turns into Murderous Maniac Maureen. The trick works, but he should have ended it there. He pulls a dead rabbit out of the hat. The more the dead rabbit hangs around, the more it feels like a trick. Maniac Maureen just isn't believable.

OK, so I didn't like the ending — a minor point. Everything else, I liked. It's good writing and good theater, brilliantly directed by Gil Lazier. He has a crisp sense of pace and back-and-forth actions and reactions. He doesn't let you get a fix on the play — is it comedy? Tragedy? When the play hits you between the eyes, there's no time to get your guard up.

Great acting, too. Kim Crow plays the mom-from-hell, Jessica K. Peterson her demonic daughter. Derry Woodhouse and Gordon Myles Woods are the Dooley brothers. Derry's the shy, smart one; Gordon's the mean, loud stupid one. Each character comes across as a complex person with an inner life and a history.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane
A Banyan Theater Company production
Through July 12
FSU Center for the Performing Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota

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