The Lonesome West

Hyde Park's return to Martin McDonagh territory is as wickedly delicious as the potato alcohol his play's bickering brothers gulp down

Arts Review

The Lonesome West

Hyde Park Theatre, through March 29

Running time: 2 hr, 15 min

One citizen of Leenane took a scythe to his old lady's head. Another downed a pint of Guinness, then drowned himself in a lake. Someone cut the ears off Valene Connor's poor dog, and nothing seems to be changing anytime soon. There's certainly merit to Father Welsh's assertion that his parish of Leenane is "the murder capital of Europe."

This is the dark world of The Lonesome West, part of Martin McDonagh's Connemara trilogy about a fictional town in the sticks of West Ireland. The play begins right after the funeral of old man Connor, who met his maker via an "accidental" gun blast to the head. His sons, Coleman and Valene, aren't losing much sleep over it. Not in Leenane. The dirt's still fresh on his grave, and they're already bickering about potato chips or Valene's collection of figurines. Their relationship is currently tense because their father bequeathed everything he owned to Valene (everything being a mangy, meager apartment), but then again, their relationship has always been tense. These bickering brothers have been at each other's throats all their lives.

As the sordid deaths pile up in Leenane, the soft-hearted and self-doubting priest Father Welsh sees saving the Connor brothers from killing each other as some form of redemption. Rescuing them from one another is no easy task, though: Coleman and Valene are highly sensitive and quick-tempered, and when they feel injured, they'll cut anyone to the bone, be it by withering remark or butcher knife. They are woefully unable to feel remorse or reflection, capable of only seven seconds of solemn silence before laughing about a deceased friend's funny name, and have no hesitation in destroying each other's prized possessions or attempting fratricide.

If West sounds barbaric and childish, it is. To a degree. But it's also witty, engaging, intense, and wickedly funny. After having a successful run last year with McDonagh's The Pillowman, Ken Webster and Hyde Park Theatre have returned to the playwright who brought them so much acclaim. But while The Pillowman was more a drama with many darkly comedic moments, West is a comedy rife with dramatic, finger-on-the-trigger moments. This allows for the reality of McDonagh's fictional town of Leenane to be even more perverse: No one bats an eye at the wife-killings and suicides that are a weekly occurrence. The Connor brothers are mean, murderous people at the beginning of the play as well as the end, yet they're likable throughout. And hilarious.

Ken Webster gets Martin McDonagh. He nailed the sardonic lines of Detective Tupolski in The Pillowman, he's made sure West is an absolute riot, and he understands the nuance and serious shifts the Irish playwright demands. Perhaps the most compelling and interesting scene of West is the only one that takes place away from the battling brothers, when Father Welsh and Girleen spend a contemplative night on the pier. The combination of riveting drama and black humor is what has made McDonagh one of today's most celebrated playwrights; Webster's direction is part of what makes him one of the most celebrated theatre artists in Austin.

This isn't to suggest that McDonagh's plays are perfect. His style of smoking guns, frequent cursing, and Tarantino-esque cool generally excludes moments of empathy or heartfelt connection. That's not how he sees the world (or, at least, it's not how he writes the world). The Connemara trilogy is peopled with brutes who belittle one another and dismember dogs.

As long as you can put those disturbances aside, you'll likely enjoy HPT's fine production. The play relies quite a bit on the wonderful back and forth of the Connor brothers, and the acting by Jude Hickey and Benjamin Summers is quite strong throughout. Summers in particular deserves mention for his great comedic timing and delivery. Paul Davis' set is the most elaborate I've seen in HPT's black-box space, but his creation of the Connor home is just what's needed.

With a healthy dose of brogues, hooliganism, and laugh-out-loud moments, The Lonesome West is as wickedly delicious as the potato alcohol the Connors gulp down. Considering how successful this play and The Pillowman have been, who knows how long the union between the Hyde Park Theatre and Martin McDonagh will last?

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The Lonesome West, Martin McDonagh, Hyde Park Theatre, Ken Webster

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