Irish playwright Martin McDonagh might well have entitled his first play, The Beauty Queen Of Leenane, No Exit, for that’s how trapped its mother-daughter protagonists find themselves in the 1996 black comedy that put McDonagh on the playwriting map. Nominated for a 1998 Best Play Tony Award and winner of Best Play Drama Desk, Drama League, Lucille Lortel, and Outer Critics Circle Awards, The Beauty Queen Of Leenane now gets an intimate Los Angeles staging that ends up easily The Production Company’s finest effort since moving into its larger Hollywood digs a year ago.

There’s a good deal of the What Ever Happened To Baby Jane dynamic in the claustrophobic, codependent relationship shared by seventy-year-old widow Mag Folan (Judy Nazemetz) and her forty-year-old spinster daughter Maureen (Ferrell Marshall), the pair of them trapped inside a dank, dreary cottage in Connemara, County Galway, Ireland—with nowhere to go but bonkers. Mag’s taunts of neglect vie with Maureen’s accusations of emotional blackmail in a never-ending stream of mutual verbal abuse, with initial scenes between mother and daughter about as darkly funny as it gets. Mom rages about the lumps in her Complan (a liquid dietary supplement popular in the UK), her bad back, her bad hand (scalded some time back under ambiguous circumstances), and her choice of biscuits (that’s British for cookies), complaints to which daughter responds with button-pushing disdain.

An invitation to the going-away party of a local about to return to his construction job in London offers Maureen a rare opportunity to put on a dress, get out of the house, and enjoy a brief respite from her mother’s never-ending verbal harassment, and when the night out leads to the very first night of lovemaking in Maureen’s up-till-now bleak, sexless life, the still lovely, still youthful “old maid” begins to dream of escape.

Under August Viverito’s inspired direction, costars Marshall and Nazemetz give two of the year’s most sensational performances in roles so deliciously theatrical that their Broadway originators walked away with Best Actress and Supporting Actress Tony Awards.

Marshall, an actress who is never anything less than splendid, now gets the bravura role she was born to play and plays it for all its worth, giving Maureen equal parts spunk and vulnerability, and it’s not just the little black dress that transforms the put-upon spinster from frumpy to fabulous. There’s a light that ignites in her portrayer’s eyes, even as the actress reveals hints that Maureen’s one-time stay in a “nut house” may have been due to more than merely “a bit of a breakdown.”

Nazemetz’s role is the showier of the two (just as Bette Davis’s was opposite Joan Crawford), and like Miss Davis, the veteran actress chews the scenery with the finest of them (and I mean this in the most complimentary of ways). In early scenes, Nazemetz gets laughs with naught but a bug-eyed glare or a vowel held extra long for effect. Later on, when darkness overshadows comedy in the play’s dramatic final sequences, the same quirks that once inspired laughter now provoke chills—to stunning effect.

Playing opposite these two magnificent leading ladies are the absolutely terrific Alex Egan and Rob Herring as a pair of brothers whose interactions with Mag and Maureen provide the catalyst for Act Two’s dramatic plot turns. As Pato Dooley, the gent for whom the going-away party is being thrown, Egan is a rough-hewn Prince Charming, and gets an extended monolog (a letter Pato has written to Maureen) that the talented actor delivers with abundant warmth and sincerity. Scenie winner Herring gives the latest in a string of memorable performances as Pato’s cantankerous, soap opera-addicted brother Ray, an angry young man you want to rise from your seat and go slap even as you once again applaud Herring’s gifts as an actor.

Still, if this superb revival of McDonough’s maiden effort can be said to “belong” to anyone, it’s to The Production Company Co-Artistic Director Viverito, ably assisted in the director’s chair by Co-Artistic Director T L Kolman. Viverito has not only directed The Beauty Queen Of Leenane with supreme assurance and flair but wears every single design hat, from the rundown Irish cottage Mag and Maureen call “Home Sweet Home” to the production’s highly effective lighting and sound designs, to just-right costume choices he has given each character to wear.

Dialect coach Kelly Jean Clair has insured what sound to this reviewer to be spot-on Irish brogues, and Jen Albert has ingeniously staged a knock-down, drag-out between sparring mother and daughter. Drew Fitzsimmons’ prosthetic design makes an impactful Act Two appearance. The Beauty Queen Of Leenane is produced by Kolman. Tiffany Cole is production stage manager.

This magical 2012 season opener gets Viverito and Kolman’s The Production Company back on the track they were on in their smaller North Hollywood space, where a string of critical and popular hits made The ProdCo L.A.’s finest blend of theatrical quality and quantity. If The Beauty Queen Of Leenane is any indication, we’re in for an exciting bunch of The ProdCo shows over the next twelve months.

The Production Company at the Lex Theatre, 6760 Lexington Avenue, Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
January 13, 2012

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