Martin McDonagh has been riding the luck of the Irish for two years now.
Just 28, the playwright shot to nearly instant fame in 1996 when his dark comedies, set in western Ireland, first hit London. Hailed as the heir to the John Millington Synge tradition, his lucky streak continued when his “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” and “The Cripple of Inishmaan” transferred to New York last year amid much acclaim and ballyhoo.
Meanwhile, the young playwright became noted as much for his offstage bravado as for his plays. The theater world’s antihero of the moment, he is rumored to have lost out on the best play Tony thanks to his antisocial antics.
Yet now that McDonagh’s work has arrived in Los Angeles and some time has passed, the fairy dust has started to fade, and his writing can be seen for what it is--and isn’t. “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” which opened in a problematic production at the Geffen Playhouse on Wednesday, reveals itself as an uneven work. Seductive as its folksy faux-Irish veneer may be, this is a play that’s more surface than substance.
Written in a made-up vernacular derived from the speech that the London-born-and-bred McDonagh heard from his relatives and while on vacations in Galway, “The Cripple of Inishmaan” lacks the existential pathos at the heart of the great Irish tradition. With only occasional moments of insight, it’s ultimately no more than clever. And McDonagh’s meteoric rise seems to have been just another case of collective wishful thinking.
Set in a gray stone-walled Irish village in 1934, “The Cripple of Inishmaan” tells the story of what happens when documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty arrives on a nearby island to make “The Man of Aran.” Billy, an orphan with deformed limbs who lives with the two spinster shopkeepers who are his adoptive “aunties,” sees the filming as his big chance to escape a suffocating life. And so he makes a break for it, managing to wrangle himself a trip to Hollywood for a screen test.
While Billy’s away, the villagers’ eccentricities come roaring into view. The compulsive gossip-monger keeps trying to get his ancient mother to drink herself to death. One of Billy’s aunts talks to stones; the other one binges on candy. And Slippy Helen, the violent young woman for whom Billy pines, goes around breaking eggs over various men’s heads.
Eventually, Billy returns from America, defeated and in ill health. But there is some consolation: He wins a date with Slippy Helen after all.
This is a comedy that gets its yuks, such as they are, mostly from plodding repetition. McDonagh seems to think there’s endless humor in ad nauseam references to (1) Billy’s propensity for staring at cows, (2) Billy’s aunt’s tendency to talk to stones, (3) variations on a joke that begins “Ireland can’t be such a bad place if . . . " and (4) the Irish version of a common expletive. But in most cases, these things aren’t funny the first time, let alone the 10th.
On a slightly higher level, this is also a comedy that aspires to shock. McDonagh delights in subverting our humanitarian expectations. Every time you expect him to stop short of crossing some line, he doesn’t. For instance: Just as you start thinking, no, they won’t actually beat the dying cripple . . . sure enough, Billy gets beaned with a pipe.
But it takes a more sophisticated writer than McDonagh to pull off this kind of black humor. And while McDonagh may aspire to be another Joe Orton, he’s nowhere near there yet. These jokes have neither the supporting satire nor the requisite precision to make them resonate as they should.
Then again, the humor isn’t helped by a stylistically disoriented production. The greatest problem with Joe Dowling’s staging is that it’s stranded in the middle ground between old-fashioned realism and a more presentational, almost Brechtian, aesthetic.
Lacking a unified style, the performances run the gamut from TV realism (Fred Koehler’s sympathetic Billy) to hyper-theatricality (Rosaleen Linehan’s wonderfully boozy Mammy). Each of these turns may be strong, in and of themselves, but particularly in the first act, they don’t seem to belong in the same play.
There is also a great deal of mugging onstage, with many of the characters reduced to tics and mannerisms. Aunt Eileen (Dearbhla Molloy) purses her lips and widens her round eyes. Aunt Kate (Barbara Tarbuck) raises her brows and wrings her hands. And cocky Helen (Derdriu Ring) stomps and sputters and crosses her arms across her chest--gestures that, when it comes down to it, are roughly the actorly equivalent of McDonagh’s writing.
* “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 7:30 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.; no Sunday evening performance on Nov. 15.) Ends Nov. 22. $30-$40. (Nov. 11 mezzanine, $25.) (310) 208-5454. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.
Dearbhla Molloy: Eileen
Barbara Tarbuck: Kate
Max Wright: Johnnypateenmike
Fred Koehler: Billy
J.D. Cullum: Bartley
Derdriu Ring: Helen
Paul O’Brien: Babbybobby
Thomas MacGreevy: Doctor McSharry
Rosaleen Linehan: Mammy
A Geffen Playhouse production. Written by Martin McDonagh. Directed by Joe Dowling. Set by Frank Hallinan Flood. Costumes by Mathew LeFebvre. Lighting by Chris Parry. Sound design by Frederick W. Boot.