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Mothers will likely be pictured as monsters on stage for as long as they continue giving birth to playwrights, but there aren’t going to be many who are savaged with the vitriol Martin McDonagh lavishes on Mag Folan in his darkly comic drama, The Beauty Queen of Leenane.

As imagined by McDonagh, and brought nastily to life at Studio Theatre by Myra Carter, Mag’s a real piece of work—vicious, calculating, selfish, a modern-day Lady Macbeth without the regal pretensions. Do her a kindness and she repays it with scorn. Treat her with kid gloves and she screams brutality. Provide her with a chamber pot so she won’t have to get up in the evening, and by dawn she’ll have emptied it into the kitchen sink.

There’s method to her meanness. Mag’s had a lousy 70 years on this planet, and she’s determined to make life just as lousy for those nearest her. Which means her grown daughter Maureen (Nancy Robinette) bears the brunt of her unpleasantness. Maureen’s sisters got out of Mag’s clutches the moment they could, marrying and moving as far from Leenane as their new husbands would take them. They rarely look back, even at Christmas—a fact Maureen can’t seem to help bringing up while heating her mother’s porridge and fetching her tea.

Of course, there’s meanness in a barb like that, too. And method to spare. For if Maureen has suffered at her mother’s hands, she’s learned during their four decades together to give back a bit of what she gets. She stocks the pantry of their spartan cottage with cookies her mother detests, “forgets” that Mag takes her tea with sugar, complains about every trivial task she is asked to undertake, and in a thousand other ways makes her very devotion a vexation. If life in this household is to be a test of wills, it’s a test Maureen intends to pass with flying colors. Like mother, like daughter.

It goes without saying that when Maureen is offered a way out of this familial predicament, her mom must fight it tooth and nail. And that’s just what happens when Ray Dooley (Tom Kearney) pops by with news that his brother Pato (Marty Lodge) is in town. Pato is a childhood buddy of Maureen’s whose fondness for her grew exponentially when he shipped off to London as a construction worker. Home for a visit, he woos her with clumsy sincerity, saying he’s always thought of her as Leenane’s “beauty queen,” and managing, almost in spite of himself, to spend the night with her. Unfortunately, she’s so used to parrying her mother’s insults that she misinterprets an innocent remark he makes the next morning, and they part on bad terms.

Subsequent events take such peculiar enough turns that I should really let you discover them for yourself. Suffice it to say that in this first installment of McDonagh’s Leenane Trilogy, the author delights in subverting—with violence and comedy—pretty much every expectation that arises from his play’s deliberately conventional setting and lyrical phrasing.

The central situation in Beauty Queen could almost have been lifted from an Irish play-writing handbook. Although Shaw and Wilde’s characters don’t have quite so many open wounds, Behan, O’Casey, and Friel all plumb a similar familial misanthropy in their dramedies. What’s different is that those more socially conscious authors tend to excuse the conduct of their creepiest protagonists by putting bottles in their hands. Sometimes the bottles are filled with whiskey, others with gasoline, depending on whether it’s Irish or British social strictures that are the real villains of a particular piece; but in either case, the characters themselves bear only part of the blame for their own behavior.

McDonagh is less concerned with assigning blame than with giving his two main characters excuses to spit bile at one another. It would have been easy for him to come up with psychological rationales for their behavior—an abusive husband for Mag, say, or some dire familial secret—but he’s created a hermetically sealed world for them and set them to fighting as if combat is simply their destiny. In that respect, the playwright McDonagh most brings to mind is Sam Shepard, and Joy Zinoman’s spare, restless production, with its spotlighted soliloquies and fretful, anxious pacing, seems designed to highlight the comparison.

Russell Metheny’s forced-perspective setting shoves its few sticks of furniture back against the rear wall’s grimy stoves and sink, leaving an unbroken expanse of flooring down front so the actors have plenty of room to swing fireplace pokers. It’s at once an open and a claustrophobic space, made drab and chilly by Joseph Appelt’s wash of green-gray light and the keening, mostly mournful score of Ron Oshima.

Carter and Robinette are a smart match as mother and daughter, seemingly lashed together as they lash furiously at each other. They’re also pretty funny when they’re not being horrifying. Carter has one scene in which she peers so intently at an envelope she’s not being allowed to open that you half expect it to burst into flames.

The men are also fine, though Kearney leans too heavily on Ray’s youthful alienation bits, perhaps because he’s a trifle long-of-tooth to be playing a character the production conceives as a teen punk. Still, he’s nicely oblivious throughout—which is mostly what’s required of him. Lodge makes Pato a persuasively earnest suitor by wearing his decency on his sleeve. In his eyes, as in Robinette’s and Carter’s, you can sometimes read a fear of loneliness that borders on outright panic…and that, at center, is what the play’s head-butting is all about.CP