Theatre Review: Beauty Queen of Leenane

Photographs: © 2017 Richard Termine
PHOTO CREDIT – Richard Termine

The Beauty Queen of Leenane by Martin McDonagh
Directed by Garry Hynes
Brooklyn Academy of Music
Reviewed by Scott Klavan
Jan. 25, 2017

The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) is considered America’s oldest performing arts center. When it was originally established in 1861 on Montague St. in Brooklyn Heights, New York, it presented opera, concerts, and theater in a 2,200 seat mainstage, with artists including Ellen Terry and Edwin Booth. In 1903, the original building burned down and the complex moved to what was then the upscale neighborhood of Fort Greene, near downtown Brooklyn; it remains there today. BAM reopened in 1908 and offered some productions of the Metropolitan Opera, with Enrico Caruso, et al, until 1921. In the post-World War II period, the borough of Brooklyn, like much of New York City, went into a tailspin; BAM went down with it. Few theatergoers would travel from Manhattan to Brooklyn in those days, fearing crime and the barren surroundings.

But in 1967, with the appointment of Harvey Lichtenstein as executive director, BAM began a revitalization. It took a little longer for Brooklyn as a whole to follow, but it did. At present, BAM has expanded to three admired and diverse facilities: the Howard Gilman Opera House (2109 seats), housed in the impressive Peter Jay Sharp Building; the Sharp building also contains the Rose Cinemas, showing domestic and international films; the Harvey Theater (formerly The Majestic, re-named after Lichtenstein, 874 seats) and the Fisher Building, with a 250-seat Black Box.  Former Development Officer Karen Brooks Hopkins became President of BAM in 1999 and retired in 2015; Katy Clark is now in that post. A mix of US and International productions in limited-runs have been a staple of BAM for decades and the facilities have presented  plays, dance and concerts from, among many others, Philip Glass, Peter Brook, Robert Wilson, Giorgio Strehler, Mark Morris, Ingmar Bergman, and Laurie Anderson. It also presents community-based classes and shows and the yearly Next Wave Festival, featuring more experimental contemporary work from younger, up-and-coming artists.  

PHOTO CREDIT – Richard Termine

Currently, the celebrated Druid theater company of Ireland is making its BAM debut at The Harvey, with a revival of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane, directed by Druid’s Artistic Director Garry Hynes. The Harvey’s renovation, finished in 1987, left the space with purposely “distressed” (unpainted) walls, and this corresponds nicely with Beauty Queen’s one set representing the grungy home of angry, elderly Mag Folan and her passionate, lonely 40- year-old daughter Maureen, in the provincial isolated Irish town of Leenane. The play’s premise of an aging virginal daughter restricted by her demanding Mom, is somewhat stock, even predictable, an Irish version of The Glass Menagerie, complete with Gentleman Caller. But the work, and the production, also has jarring plot twists, keen moments of high and low comedy, earthy sensuality and heartrending torment. Directed in a subtle, crafty manner and acted with enthusiasm and invention, it’s an affecting, memorable night.

Beauty Queen was first performed in Galway, Ireland, in 1996, directed by Hynes, a co-production of Druid and England’s Royal Court Theatre. It was eventually teamed with two other works by McDonough, The Lonesome West and A Skull in Connemara, as part of a Leenane Trilogy. Beauty Queen moved to London and Druid co-produced the US Off-Broadway production with Atlantic Theatre Company in 1998. It then transferred to Broadway, where it was a major success, winning Tony Awards for Hynes and three of its actors. This revival has been to LA and after BAM, will tour US cities including Boston and Pittsburgh. Playwright McDonough has enjoyed numerous stage hits, such as The Pillowman and The Lieutenant of Inishmore, and written and directed films including In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths.

PHOTO CREDIT – Richard Termine

Here, Hynes starts the show off at a daringly slow pace. As mother Mag (Marie Mullen) and daughter Maureen (Aisling O’Sullivan) bicker and jaw, the audience feels the desolately repetitive nature of their nights and relationship. But when Maureen meets a suitor, sincere, affable Pato Dooley (Marty Rea), visiting from his job in England, the director slyly increases the threat and hope underlying the circular boredom of the people and town. There is a way out for Maureen and the stifling quality of the earlier scene causes the audience’s anxiety and need for escape to grow, matching Maureen’s on stage. Maureen is propelled into a brief affair and its aftermath, but her quest for freedom is endangered by her mother and the strangely seductive, suffocating indolence of her home and country, represented by her neighbor, Pato’s brother Ray (Aaron Monaghan). At its close, the piece has become a wrenching depiction of how the pull of familial/national heritage can cripple our confidence and stunt our dreams, making it impossible for us to resist acquiescing to our own final diminishment.

Interestingly, in this production, Mag is played by Marie Mullen, who was Maureen in the 1996 version, winning a Tony. Mullen takes the grand risk of being devious and ugly here and while there might be a few too many moments of mugging, there is compelling clarity and strength in the portrayal. As lead Maureen, Aisling O’Sullivan is fiery, brooding, sexy, and amusing. She convincingly toes the edge of sanity, keeping the true depth of Maureen’s problems a surprise, a plot-line necessity. However, it might be added that as written, where Maureen is concerned, the term Beauty Queen seems to be meant ironically; O’Sullivan’s Nicole Kidman-ish good-looks fight the character description.

PHOTO CREDIT – Richard Termine

The men give two outstanding, bravura performances. Marty Rea as Pato makes something complicated and moving out of what could have been a straightforwardly devoted and decent guy. Pato has the mettle to overcome the modesty and kindness that should have kept him stuck in Leenane. A monologue of Pato reading a letter from England to Maureen garnered show-stopping applause. Aaron Monaghan’s Ray is filled with childishly restless physical tremors and vocal spasms: ballsy and brilliant. Dead-head Ray rails against spending time watching “telly” with unpleasant Mag but only yearns to leave to go to his own house and watch the same shows. Ray’s final moments with Maureen are both uproarious and horrifying; as it should be, but is often not with plays, this culminating sequence is the finest in the show. Sets and costumes (Francis O’Connor), lighting (James F. Ingalls) and sound (Greg Clarke) are quiet but effective in their minimalism, redolent of the airless atmosphere of Leenane, and typifying the Druid’s high standards of theatricality.

PHOTO CREDIT – Richard Termine

Leaving the Harvey Theater, it is obvious that BAM’s neighborhood is in the final stages of a years-long regeneration. (This reviewer lives about 90 minutes by subway and bus from BAM and, once a regular, hasn’t attended in several years.) There are appealing bars and restaurants on every level of the economic scale near all of BAM’s spaces. Theater For A New Audience, a respected NYC company presenting classics and near-classics, now has a permanent home steps away in the bright, inviting Polonsky Shakespeare Center. (Elsewhere in Brooklyn, innovative St. Ann’s Warehouse has a beautiful new space in the DUMBO section and is currently presenting another British import, the Donmar Warehouse’s all-female version of The Tempest, starring the great actress Harriet Walter as Prospero.)  Down the street, The Barclays Center, a state-of-the-art sports and performance arena, home to the Nets of basketball and hockey’s Islanders, has come to rival Madison Square Garden. While some in Manhattan still shy away from travelling the 30 minutes from Times Square to Brooklyn for the arts, maintaining a belief in their own area’s longtime superiority, they’re outdated and wrong.

While Manhattan looks down its nose at Brooklyn, at times, there have been grumbles about elitism in regard to BAM. And it is deserved: BAM presents the most sophisticated artists in opulent productions from all around the world, for frustratingly brief periods of time. (Beauty Queen is in a long run for BAM, from Jan. 11 to Feb. 5. But in February, the production of an adaptation of the book A Man Of Good Hope by Capetown, South Africa’s Isango Ensemble, sounds terrific but will have a more typical run of only five performances.) Though there are occasional discounts, its ticket prices are comparatively high. BAM usually doesn’t do traditionally “commercial” pieces and because it is technically not, union speaking, a Broadway house, is not eligible for The Tony Awards, reducing its nationwide media exposure. But offering the best of the best is a positive, not a negative attribute. BAM maintains the highest standards in its choices and execution and that practice can’t help but raise the quality of theater, and all of the arts, for rival producing organizations and so, all audience members. If travelling to New York, it is well worth the effort to head to Brooklyn, BAM and the nearby theaters, even in lieu of Broadway. Unlike the doomed and paralyzed Maureen of Leenane, by taking a chance, going a little out of your way, you will experience Adventure.    

Sources: BAM website, Wikipedia, New York Times,

Scott Klavan, theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. Scott performed on Broadway in Irena’s Vow, with Tovah Feldshuh, in regional theater, and in numerous shows Off Broadway, including The Joy Luck Club. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater by the Blind (TBTB, now Theater Breaking Through Barriers), and his play Double Murder was published in Best American Short Plays of 2006-2007. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. In 2014, he starred in A Soldier’s Notes, an episode of the new Web Series Small Miracles, alongside Judd Hirsch, earning him a nomination for Outstanding Actor in the LA Web Series Festival 2015.  He directed the one-woman show My Stubborn Tongue, written and performed by Anna Fishbeyn, at the United Solo Festival in New York, and a series of staged readings of a new comedy, Sheila & Angelo, at the Dramatist Guild. In 2015, he appeared in the Off-Broadway production of the musical Sayonara, for Pan Asian Rep. Scott directed and appeared in the solo play Canada Geese, by George Klas, in the 2016 NY International Fringe Festival. 

Brooklyn Academy of Music Theater

Scott Klavan at EIL 

Scott Klavan’s review of The Babylon Line 

Scott Klavan on The Fringe Festival  

Beauty Queen photo credits: Richard Termine
(all photos copyright 2017 Richard Termine)

Special thanks to Sarah Garvey

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