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Martin McDonagh & The Lonesome West

The Irish Classical's production of The Lonesome West opens this weekend and runs through March 28.

Martin McDonagh is famed for his ability to spin a yarn. This week, the Irish Classical Theatre Company opens The Lonesome West, his 1997 tale of two brothers squabbling and brawling in the aftermath of the possibly accidental shooting death of their father.

Sort of an Irish version of Scheherazade cum Flannery O’Connor cum Edgar Allen Poe, McDonagh has received a Tony Award nomination each time he has ventured onto Broadway. His newest play, and the first to be set in America, A Behanding in Spokane, is due to open on Broadway this spring with Christopher Walken as a man whose hand was chopped off by some nasty people in his youth and who now seeks not only his revenge but the return of the severed hand.

Comedy in the face of grotesquery is the hallmark of a Martin McDonagh play.

McDonagh’s monstrous tales of life in Lenanne and in the Aran Islands are noted for evoking laughter at the unspeakable, and for explorations of families that rival the mythical Greeks for dysfunction. His best known works are divided into two trilogies: “The Leenane Trilogy” and the “Aran Islands Trilogy.” The Lonesome West is the final installment of Leenane group, which began with The Beauty Queen of Leenane (1996) and A Skull in Connemara (1997). (The Aran Islands Trilogy includes The Cripple of Inishmaan (1996), The Lieutenant of Inishmore (2001), and The Banshees of Inisheer—the last of these is unproduced, unpublished, and by the playwright’s own account, not very good.)

Of these plays, Beauty Queen and The Cripple of Inishmaan have been seen in Buffalo—Beauty Queen at Studio Arena (with Josephine Hogan as the spinster daughter) and the New Phoenix (with Mary Loftus as the nasty mum with the urine infection); and Cripple of Inishmaan at the Irish Classical. The original New York production of Inishmaan, the story of Cripple Billy and his desire to star in a film documentary about Aran, featured a winning and memorable performance by the daughter of Buffalo’s Chris O’Neill, Aisling O’Neill, as egg-smashing Helen. (In addition, the New Phoenix has presented his 2003 play, Pillowman, in which the police of a fictitious totalitarian state come looking for a writer of short stories that depict horrible violence against children, after a series of local murders begins to resemble his stories a bit too precisely.)

While The Lonesome West is the least heavily plotted of McDonagh’s major plays, it resonates with the names of characters and of incidents referred to in the other plays in the trilogy: Beauty Queen and A Skull in Connemara. The violent deaths that figure prominently in the first two plays are alluded to in Lonesome West, and those who saw Beauty Queen may recall the story of the cutting off of a dog’s ears that is part of this story.

To recap, Beauty Queen was about a deluded spinster whose mother foils her last chance at love—inspiring a gruesome onstage revenge involving a hot stove and a fire poker. In A Skull in Connemara, which has never been seen in Buffalo, a man whose job is to exhume skeletons in an overcrowded graveyard finds that he now has to turn his attention to the corner of the yard where his wife is buried—adding complication, she died in a car crash when he was driving drunk, and more complicated still, the gossip around town is that she might have been dead even before the impact. (Like A Skull in Connemara, The Lieutenant of Inishmore also features a stage strewn with body parts and has never been seen in Buffalo.)

To hear McDonagh tell it, concealing murders is sort of the town sport of Leenane.

Do not be put off by seeing the plays out of order—they were also performed in New York out of sequence, and, of course, Banshees has never been seen at all.

McDonagh has legions of fans, and also detractors, especially those who object to the major holes and repetitions in the stories he cranked out from a young age like soap opera installments. I have found, by contrast, that every play has an element that is riveting, an image that becomes emblazoned on my mind, and a skillful way of making the audience yearn in suspense for the next plot twist. From the moment I saw the Broadway production of Beauty Queen, and felt the breathless anticipation and horror that leads up to the final scenes, I was a fan. Alison Pill’s performance in the gruesome but hilarious Lieutenant of Inishmore cemented my enthusiasm.

I enjoy the individual quirks of the characters in all the plays, which are fresh and human and even at their most outrageous, very real. In a Martin McDonagh play, a character can be inspired to murder by the unjust death of a cat or because of an insult to a haircut. McDonagh understands the pettiness of egocentric yet beaten-down people, and it is fun to laugh at their unspeakable treacheries.

In The Lonesome West the father of brothers Coleman and Valene has just died in a shotgun “accident.” Naïve Father Welsh, the alcoholic parish priest, attempts to help the pair mend the wounds of their lives and relationship, to little avail. Neither brother shows grief or compassion. The common emotion of this town is a kind of self-absorbed sense of indignation that inspires violent vengeful outbursts.

Directed by Greg Natale, the production at the Irish Classical Theatre stars Joe Wiens, Steve Copps, Candice Kogut, and Bryan Patrick Stoyle, and will run through March 28 at the Andrews Theatre, 625 Main Street. Call 853-ICTC for reservations and further information.