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The Enigma of South London

David Gritten, a regular contributor to Calendar, is based in London

“Humble? I don’t like humble,” the young British playwright Martin McDonagh remarked a couple of years back. “If you think you’re good, then it’s a lie to pretend you’re not. I prefer the Muhammad Ali approach: Tell everyone you’re the greatest, then prove it.”

In fairness to McDonagh, 28, he has stayed true to his own philosophy ever since. He claims to be less interested in theater than in movies and longs to write screenplays, so one might imagine he would be enthusiastic and eager to be in Los Angeles for the first West Coast performance of his play “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” which opens at the Geffen Playhouse on Wednesday. Not so.

McDonagh is not expected to show up at the Westside theater for any rehearsals, though he informed the theater’s spokesman Gary Murphy by letter: “I may turn up for the opening.” The latest word is that only his writer brother will come to represent him for the occasion.

Oh, and he would not be helping the production by talking to the L.A. media: “I’ve stopped doing interviews now,” he informed Murphy. “The New York experience of them bored me senseless.”

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McDonagh, then, is quite a piece of work. He has capitalized on his success (if that is the right phrase) by presenting himself to the world as a tempestuous mixture of Ali, Orson Welles and Liam Gallagher, the boisterous singer with the British rock band Oasis. Which makes him a braggart and a young prodigy who behaves like a bad boy in public.

It was in 1996 that McDonagh burst from obscurity. His play “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” staged first by Dublin’s Druid Theatre Co. and then transferred to London’s Royal Court theater, enraptured critics, attracted sellout audiences and marked him as an extraordinary talent. He was 25 at the time. Last year, Britain’s prestigious National Theatre endorsed the young playwright’s talent by staging his play “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” directed by the eminent Nicholas Hytner. Praise this time around was more muted, but the production still seemed to confirm him as a major name in British theater. Craftsman-like and cleverly constructed, his plays proved he could adroitly mix comedy and darker themes, and that he had a skillful ear for dialogue.

Both plays were transferred to the New York stage and at one point earlier this year were playing there simultaneously. Critics in the Big Apple were more guarded about the works but still highly respectful. “Beauty Queen” won four Tonys, for the director and three of the actors.

Yet by spring of this year, the intrigue surrounding McDonagh the man was as widely discussed as the quality of his plays. For one thing, both of the plays are set in the west coast of Ireland and deeply rooted in the Irish dramatic tradition of J.M. Synge and Sean O’Casey. But McDonagh insists he has rarely attended the theater, and shrugs at questioners who want to discuss playwrights such as Samuel Beckett or Brian Friel; he is more familiar with the screenplays of David Mamet and Martin Scorsese. He first decided to write for the stage when at age 15 he saw Al Pacino in “American Buffalo.”

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“I don’t come from any sort of literary background,” he told one reporter. “I hated school, I couldn’t be bothered to go to university. I never did any work, I never read a book. I didn’t like the idea of being taught by sad nobodies when you might turn out to be a somebody.”

And not only is he not an Irish theater buff--he isn’t even Irish. He and his older brother John were born and grew up in south London, where they still live. His working-class parents were from the west of Ireland, but immigrated to England in the 1960s. They returned to Ireland a few years ago, leaving the London house to the two brothers.

“I’ve gone over to see them quite often, and talked to people [in Ireland],” McDonagh has noted. “I heard the way my uncles spoke and the structure of their sentences. That’s where I picked up the idea for ‘The Beauty Queen of Leenane.’ Otherwise, I made it all up.”

Until his first play was produced, McDonagh had only worked at casual jobs, and mostly survived on unemployment benefits. His writing life, he says, is “boring,” and seems to involve writing snatches of scenes between watching soap operas and soccer games on TV.

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Still, it is his public pronouncements and behavior that have contributed most to his notoriety. When he won a prestigious drama award in London for “Beauty Queen,” McDonagh, reportedly fueled by alcohol, received his statuette with a mumbled monosyllable of thanks, lurched back to his seat and engaged in a furious, expletive-laden tirade of abuse directed at actor Sean Connery, who was seated nearby. He later refused to apologize and insisted to reporters Connery had only ever made one good film.

Then there was the time he bad-mouthed the BBC; early in his career McDonagh had presented the BBC with several radio plays, all of which they rejected: “The BBC puts on turgid, middle-class, humdrum, whiny stuff. I was trying to change their output in a major way, so it was natural for them to reject me.”

And on arriving in Manhattan before his two plays were staged there, he told a journalist: “New York is sort of ripe for the picking. I mean, it’s not like there are lots of really good plays over here right now.”

Colleagues who know the private side of McDonagh insist he is quite different out of the media gaze. “In rehearsal room he is a model of correct procedure,” said one London theater source who asked not to be named. “He’d come in every day, he’d do rewrites without complaining. There was no lack of application, and he was very professional. He has a tricky public persona. He does like to play the bad boy, but it’s like an assumed mask.”

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McDonagh’s London-based literary agent Rod Hall tells a similar story. “I hope he hasn’t caused any offense by not doing interviews,” said Hall earnestly. “I think Martin just feels he doesn’t have anything interesting to say.”

He disclosed that McDonagh has written another play, “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” which he wants to see produced next, and a further play, “Inisheen.” McDonagh has also written a screenplay commissioned by Hollywood producer Scott Rudin, called “First Day Out of Folsom.” “It has a lot of characters, many of whom end up dead,” said Hall, who added he did not expect the script to be filmed.

“Martin’s not taking any commissions, even film commissions at the moment,” Hall said. “He’s writing for himself, and then we’ll see what happens. He’s had a lot of requests from Hollywood to write for feature films, but he just wants to deliver his work when he’s ready to an unsuspecting world.”

Yet the world is no longer as unsuspecting as it was two years ago, when McDonagh launched himself upon it. Critics inevitably view his work through the prism of his media antics, even if they are sympathetic to him.

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Michael Ross, writing in the London Sunday Times, noted the propensity of British critics to build up young talent, then turn against it: “Eighteen months ago McDonagh was the one on whom favor was bestowed. Now he is fresh meat, ready for clubbing.” The London Daily Telegraph’s Charles Spencer, though a McDonagh admirer, voiced an eloquent reservation about “The Cripple of Inishmaan”: “He writes nearly as well as he says he does.”

Spencer also wondered about McDonagh’s stubborn declaration that he has little knowledge of the theater; why, then, Spencer wondered, did “The Cripple of Inishmaan” seem “like a skillful parody of almost every Irish play you have ever seen?”

“I still don’t feel I’ve cracked the McDonagh enigma,” Spencer continued. “Is he a potentially great dramatist, or merely a very clever one? On this evidence, I’m beginning to incline to the latter verdict.”

Los Angeles audiences will have the first chance this week to decide for themselves. However the production is received, it is already clear that for years to come Martin McDonagh will not be easy to ignore.

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“THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN,” Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Dates: Opens Wednesday. Regular schedule: Tuesdays to Thursdays, 7 p.m.; Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 4 and 8:30 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Also, Nov. 11, 2 p.m.; Nov. 15, 2 p.m. only. Ends Nov. 22. Prices: $30-$40. Phone: (310) 208-5454.


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