For too many viewers and reviewers, transatlantic axiomatically equals transcendent, which is why The Beauty Queen of Leenane is moving to Broadway. But Martin McDonagh’s other play to be seen here, The Cripple of Inishmaan, is better: less claustrophobic, more insightful into a small Irish community, less obvious melodrama. It still basks in the quick reversals McDonagh is overfond of, and the characters are even more inconsistent. But there is greater variety in the humor, and some welcome understatement. The more rebarbative influence of O’Casey is tempered by the gentler one of Synge.
Too much fun still derives from characters’ gullibility or stupidity, but the young author is trying to lift himself from farce into comedy. There are moments of adult ruefulness, as when one boy makes fun of an old spinster who talks to stones, and the other rebukes him, “You shouldn’t laugh at other people’s misfortunes.” Comes the stunned answer, “Why?” Response: “I don’t know why. Just that you shouldn’t is all.” A benighted world, this, where one youth doesn’t know why wrong is wrong, and the other why right is right. Well acted as it is, the brief exchange is amazingly revelatory of character.
The two imported Irish actors – Ruaidhri Conroy, as the ingenuous young cripple, and Aisling O’Neill, as the pretty hoyden he vainly longs for – are matched in excellence by the local talent. Donal Donnelly (granted, a long-ago Irish transplant) admirably manages to be charming without lapsing into cuteness. Roberta Maxwell and Elizabeth Franz are fine as a pair of elderly shopkeepers who have adopted the orphaned cripple. Michael Gaston as the local strongman, Peter Maloney as the village doctor, Christopher Fitzgerald as a youth enamored of candy and telescopes, and Eileen Brennan as a bibulous but indestructible nonagenarian are all spot on.
So, too, are Tony Walton’s sets, Ann Roth’s costumes, and Jerry Zaks’s direction. But let’s not yet go overboard for Martin McDonagh. Back in 1935, Sean O’Casey warned, “English criticism has long lost its virility, and is fast losing its courage.” Must this still be true in 1998?