Graveyard Humor

In A Skull in Connemara, the young Irish playwright Martin McDonagh mashes together bits of absurdism and Artaudian theater of cruelty, then sprinkles them with some powdered Synge. This need not necessarily spell fiasco, but the jokes turn sour, the plot and dialogue are studiedly outrageous, and you don’t give a farthing for any of the characters, and so the work, whatever its commercial value, is artistically nil.

Mick Dowd, in his fifties, has for a profession digging up Leenane’s dead after a number of years and dumping them in a nearby lake to make room for newer arrivals. This work is done discreetly by night, with the full approval of Father Welsh or Walsh, as none of his parishioners knows his name for sure. The play opens in Mick’s humble cottage, where seventyish Maryjohnny Rafferty drops in regularly for some poteen. Talk is about nothing much – e.g., whether it is still August or already September. We gather that seven years ago Mick did jail time after his drunken driving killed his wife, Oona.

The villagers suspect Mick of cracking Oona’s skull with a hammer, then making it look like a car accident. This suspicion is revived in conversation with Mairtin Hanlon, Maryjohnny’s twentyish and loutish grandson, arriving with the news that Father Welsh, or Walsh, has appointed him assistant gravediggerupper. The next scene is in the graveyard, where Mick and Mairtin are exhuming skulls and bones and collecting them in a sack. They are mostly taunting each other until Thomas, Mairtin’s elder brother and Leenane’s grandiose but inept policeman, shows up for some three-way taunting.

An asthmatic, Thomas alternatingly smokes and sucks on an inhaler. Mairtin is twice pushed into an open grave and pelted with loose earth; Thomas narrates the unsolved case of an enormously fat villager found nude and dead before his TV, with only a jar of jam and a lettuce in his huge fridge. Mick allows how, “If it was the height of summer, and he wasn’t expecting any visitors, it might well explain the stark naked.” After a meditative pause, Thomas opines, “It might explain the stark naked, ay. It might not explain the complete absence of food in his six-foot fridge! Eh?”

Spirited discussions develop about whether more people drown in septic tanks or are run over by combine harvesters, and whether drowning in one’s wee is worse than choking on sick. Another debate develops about whether young Mairtin got into trouble by cooking alive a cat or a hamster. Thomas, who cannot tell the difference between circumstantial and hearsay evidence, is nevertheless a stickler for facts: “Cooking cats, ay. No. A hamster it was. Mick: It’s the same difference, sure. Thomas: Pardon me? Mick: It’s the same difference, I said. Thomas: It’s not the same difference at all, sure. A cat is one thing. A hamster is another.” When Mick wonders whether this is “worth the argue,” Thomas launches on a speech climaxing with, “Things like that are the difference between solving or not solving an entire case, sure.” Meanwhile, Mairtin has gone off to see Father Welsh, or Walsh, to verify whether what Mick told him is true: that people are buried with their willies snipped off lest they offend the Lord. Then Mick discovers, horrified, that Oona is missing from her grave.

The entire next scene, in Mick’s cottage, is punctuated by Mick and Mairtin, armed with wooden mallets, drunkenly smashing the disinterred skulls and bones on the parlor table, so as to facilitate their disposal. One of the mallets eventually gets used on a living head.

The actors – Kevin Tighe, Zoaunne LeRoy, Christopher Carley, and Christopher Evan Welch (not Walch) – perform this stuff as if they believed it. David Gallo’s set features headstones hanging from the ceiling, and Gordon Edelstein’s direction is no less topsy-turvy. As I was leaving, a stranger remarked that he did not envy me my job. By the way, don’t sit in the front rows, to avoid flying bone fragments. The play, unfortunately, cannot be avoided from any row.

A Skull in Connemara
By Martin McDonagh.
Directed by Gordon Edelstein at the Roundabout Theatre.

Graveyard Humor