Twenty years have passed since Martin McDonagh burst onto the London theater scene fully formed, more Noel Gallagher than Noël Coward. He collected the Most Promising Newcomer prize at the London Evening Standard Theatre Awards in late 1996, and he made sure the story got covered by telling Sean Connery to “fuck off, mate” at the ceremony. A few months later he had four plays running simultaneously in London, a feat The Guardian said only William Shakespeare could match.
McDonagh’s sardonic chamber pieces remain so popular that everyone wants a piece of him. Locally, his bloody oeuvre has not been confined to D.C.’s several companies specializing in plays from Ireland; Studio, Forum, Constellation, Round House, and Signature have all performed his work in the last decade, too.
The Irish-focused Keegan Theatre’s sublime new production of The Lonesome West affirms yet again the behavioral insight that makes McDonagh’s casually hard-hearted work so hard to dismiss. First appearing in 1997, it was the third in a trilogy of grim comedies McDonagh set in the remote Connemara village of Leenane, where confinement and poverty drive the residents—the ones he writes about anyway—to suicide or violence.
In this one, profoundly unmarriageable adult brothers Coleman and Valene have just buried their father. Coleman shot the old man, supposedly by accident, though only their bewildered pastor, Father Welsh (Chris Stezin, in a haunted performance), truly buys that excuse. Valene appears to own most of the contents of their shared farmhouse (vividly designed by Matthew J. Keenan, the Dublin native who also plays the charming but profoundly selfish Coleman), particularly the tacky collection of religious figurines, which he expects will secure his place in heaven. He also pays for the hooch, a vile-sounding potato-derived moonshine called Poteen. It’s supplied by a girl called, um, Girleen (Sarah Chapin), who doubles down on sarcasm to conceal a tiny crush on Father Welsh. It’s not exactly a crowded field, and ineffectual though he is, he at least tries to be decent.
As the endlessly victimized meeker brother Valene, Bradley Foster Smith fully earns our sympathy and pity. Only Keenan’s Coleman seems to have no earthly source for his spite, though McDonagh and Coleman leave us plenty of space to ponder it.
The songs played over the scene changes (The Cranberries, Vanilla Ice) help us remember the piece is set in 1993, before Ireland’s mid-’90s economic turnaround. Whether that windfall found its way to Leenane is questionable; whether it did much for Coleman or Valene is dubious. Like Father Welsh’s limp entreaties to them to be kind to one another, it was probably too little, too late.
To Aug. 27 1742 Church St. NW. $35–$45. (202) 265-3767. keegantheatre.com.