Parade of Pointless Pain

I must admit, I don't see the point of Martin McDonagh's The Lonesome West, a play about a pair of hateful and hate-filled brothers, set in a bleak Irish village called Leenane (this is the third of a trilogy of plays set in this place). One of the brothers, Coleman Connor, has killed their father because the old man insulted his hair. The other, Valene, a miserly, gloating handwringer, promised not to tell the police -- if Coleman turned over all rights to the bit of family money and their cramped, dingy house to him. That done, Valene has a fine old time gloating and flaunting his purchases to his glowering brother. The two fight over potato chips, Valene's cherished new stove and the plastic religious figurines with which he has filled the living room. They rehash old scores. They discuss the village's recent crop of murders and suicides: It seems the slaughter of Connor senior was no isolated incident; violence and homicide haunt the town, and all the killings are as mindless and meaningless as Coleman's.

Okay, so playwright Martin McDonagh wants to write anti-plays. He wants to tear down romantic notions about Ireland: the country's celebrated misty green beauty, the myths, legends and stories, the kind of poetry spun by Yeats and Synge. But the sniggering sensibility of a snot-nosed twelve-year-old doesn't make for much of a substitute.

It's true, McDonagh's a clever twelve-year-old. Sometimes Lonesome West is pretty funny. The brothers' dialogue, the down-and-dirty fights over vol-au-vents, the slaps at the Catholic Church, represented here by hapless, drunken and impotent Father Welsh -- or Walsh -- do raise laughter. But is that Walsh-Welsh confusion -- the fact that the other characters can never quite get the priest's name right -- really so funny that it bears repeating time and again?

Last year, the Denver Center produced McDonagh's A Skull in Connemara, and that text seemed to me to carry a lot more resonance. There was more variety and texture to the dialogue -- in Lonesome West every character, except for the schoolgirl Girleen, sings one song only. The brothers mock, gloat, debunk and rage, then mock gloat, debunk and rage some more. There's an initially funny patch during which they try to behave, apologizing profusely to each other for past misdeeds, but that, too, goes on and on and on. Father Welsh laments and drinks throughout. In Skull, we had more interesting characters: flaky Mairtin, abused but irrepressible, and policeman Tom, with his demented belief that he could solve crimes by decoding the words and rules of American cop shows. (Tom plays a large, though off-stage, role in this play, too, as a suicide.) In Skull, we're also given the mystery of whether or not Mick killed his wife to ponder. By contrast, both the story and the characters are flat in Lonesome West.

And of course, the situation in Skull -- the digging up of graves, the table covered with human bones -- added weight and significance to all the drinking, flailing and cursing on stage. When Coleman gleefully smashes a couple of his brother's figurines, we remember the pure exhilaration of watching Mick and Mairtin pulverize skulls and femurs, but there's no accompanying shock of truth here.

There is, however, an odd sentimentality. First of all, we have a suggestion that the brothers' endless threats of fratricide represent a form of love. Then there are the priest's sincere if meaningless attempts to do his job, and his final wager of his soul for the brothers' salvation. The minute he speaks this, we know the play can end in only one of two ways: The brothers will effect a difficult reconciliation or redouble their attempts to kill each other. Since this is a McDonagh play, it's not even a close guess. Girleen's love for the priest (though even she can't remember his name), provides a few seconds of genuine light, as does her speech about the dead in the graveyard envying us our small, slight chance of redemption and wishing us well. (There's an echo here of Carol Cutrere's far fiercer assertion in Tennessee Williams's Orpheus Descending that the dead exhort us to "Live. Live. Live. Live. Live.")

Director Anthony Powell has mounted a solid production. Perhaps a bit too solid: If it were faster and more manic, we might not notice the lack of substance until after leaving the theater. Bill Christ carries the evening as dumb, sullen, brutish Coleman -- as slow on the uptake as he is quick to hurt and destroy. Mark Rubald is less assured as Valene; there's something about him that's too gentle and civilized for the role, though he engages with it manfully and sometimes hits it home. In flat black shoes, one sock almost up, the other almost down, Morgan Hallet brings a fling-about freshness to the proceedings as Girleen. Steven Cole Hughes, stuck with the thankless, whiny role of Father Welsh, has his moments but doesn't quite come up to the challenge of the priest's great gesture of self-immolation when he plunges his hands into molten plastic. Nor does Hughes seem to remember the condition of those hands more than intermittently during the second act. But then the playwright seems to share his amnesia, apparently believing one could pen a long, thoughtful letter with such badly burned fingers.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman