Beauty Is

His radical American cousins have reduced the grandeur of character to the smithereens of personality. His angry English countrymen have rejected arch debate in favor of circuitous harangue. And his disaffected Irish forebears have alternately romanticized, upbraided and forsaken their motherland. But rather than siphon such tried-and-true iconoclasm, twenty-something playwright Martin McDonough has reawakened dramatic imaginations on both sides of the Atlantic -- and in his parents' native Ireland -- by spinning yarns that express old passions in uniquely poetic ways.

Following its premiere in Galway in 1996, McDonough's first play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, transferred to Broadway and won four Tony awards. That commercial and artistic triumph, combined with productions of the two other works in his Leenane trilogy set in Ireland's West country (A Skull in Connemara and The Lonesome West), as well as the more successful The Cripple of Inishmaan, earned the brash dramatist the label of "genius." Despite published rumblings that the London-born (and -bred) writer is disenchanted with the theater, is an avid television viewer and would rather write screenplays, McDonough's storytelling talents and gift for verbiage make his vaunted playwrighting reputation both well-founded and well-deserved.

Indeed, Beauty Queen, which is being presented in the Stage Theatre by the Denver Center Theatre Company, kindles feeling without lapsing into sentiment, startles the intellect without cudgeling the mind and rouses defiance (both familial and nationalistic) without trumpeting outright rebellion. Like such master language architects as Anton Chekhov, Harold Pinter and even Irish expatriate Samuel Beckett, McDonough embeds his dialogue with spare but telling clues that, as expertly deciphered by director Anthony Powell and a first-rate cast, ingeniously reveal character.

At first glance, though, it's hard to tell that forty-year-old Maureen Folan (Robin Mosely) harbors wanton contempt for her manipulative seventy-year-old mother, Mag (Kathleen M. Brady), or that the two are frighteningly similar in deportment, demeanor and disposition. As the play begins, in the Folans's tiny cottage home (a wonderfully austere hearth-and-hellhole setting designed by Bill Curley), the two exchange ordinary remarks and looks that bespeak the forced domestic union of ailment-ridden matriarch and spinster-dour daughter. Perpetually embittered by her mother's domineering helplessness and numbed by the drudgery of rural life, Maureen leaps at an invitation from young Ray Dooley (Ryan Artzberger) to attend a going-away party for his fortyish brother, Pato (Bill Christ), a drifter who periodically travels to London to secure well-paying work. "When it's there I am, it's here I wish I was," says Pato as he locks eyes with Maureen and dubs her the "beauty queen" of the play's title. "But when it's here I am, it isn't there I want to be." When Mag discovers that the two lovebirds have slept together under her roof, she erupts in a volcanic display of jealousy that prompts Pato to make a hasty exit and Maureen to teeter on the edge of a dangerous emotional precipice.

After intermission, McDonough introduces a few stiletto-like plot twists that on opening night took the wind out of theatergoers, especially during a chillingly climactic episode. A few minutes later, the play's haunting denouement enforced hushed silence -- except for the ripples of nervous laughter that greeted one character's horrifically funny comment. But whether they're negotiating scenes of suspenseful melodrama, gruesome humor and tender passion -- and all of the jumbled, sometimes caustic hybrids thereof -- Powell and the actors imbue each moment with artful restraint and abundant humanity.

Mosely, who made an impressive DCTC appearance in the Arena Stage's production of A Touch of the Poet a couple of seasons back, invests her wrenching portrait with a mixture of hard-edged despair and obstinate pluck. Her every gesture, movement and word communicates a heartache that's never more than partially assuaged and an anger half-hidden behind a pale cloud of humor and diffidence. Mosely masterfully traverses Maureen's polar extremes (including a couple of harrowing moments that Powell orchestrates with lightning-quick ferocity), locates her bottomless despair when describing a Londoner's insults ("The fecking pig's-backside face on ya") and impishly needles Mag by saying, "Allowed to go on top of a man nowadays, we are. All we have to do is ask." In addition, she perfectly modulates each utterance and glance during her Act One tête-à-tête with Christ, who, for his part, is a powerfully lyrical Pato. His Act Two monologue, which communicates the contents of a letter from Pato to Maureen, is nothing short of a great spoken aria. And throughout the rest of his too-brief appearances, Christ lends near-ministerial tenderness and dignity to Pato's blarney, particularly when he's gently understanding of Maureen's nagging emotional scars. "All you have to do is think about things and take them to heart," he says sympathetically.

As the intractable Mag, Brady is more a sad case who's got her "Pity me" routine down pat than a vicious woman with a singular desire to control her daughter's life. But despite the apparent feebleness of her calculated whining and wheedling, she instantly proves a formidable adversary when crossed -- or whenever a glimmer of hope flashes across Maureen's countenance. And her scenes with the dutiful but bored-as-a-doornail Artzberger, who hilariously contorts his lanky frame and bewildered mug in response to every guilt-laden daft request, take on a devilishly comedic tone.

Smarmy reductionists have accused McDonough of lacking authenticity and heart, exploiting cheap theatrics and failing to explain within the framework of his plays why his characters behave as they do. Much like the works of Chekhov, Ibsen, Wilde, Pinter and Beckett, though, his plays are deceptively simple road maps that are only as good as the people who perform them. And like those masters of the modern stage, McDonough's creations attain full flower when nurtured by a seasoned director's artful touch. Happily, Powell and company's vision extends well beyond obvious horizons.

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Jim Lillie