By Martin McDonagh (Repertory Theatre of St. Louis)

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Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane, which opened last weekend at the Loretto-Hilton, is a play about present-day Irish in Ireland -- if, that is, it's possible to talk about present vs. past when talking about Ireland. Ten days from now, the Rep will open another play about the Irish in Ireland, Conor McPherson's The Weir, in the Studio Theatre. That's a lot of brogue in a relatively short time. And it shows how stuck on the Irish the Rep seems to be. For that matter, Jews seem sticky, too. Plays concerning these two ethnic groups have dominated the Rep stage for years now, with Holocaust plays (a subgroup of the Jewish play) showing up regularly for faux variety.

The history of the Irish, like that of the Jews, is terrifying, and what the English did to the Irish over the course of a millennium compares in cruelty and repression quite favorably with the German (and Russian, Polish, Roman and Hellenistic Greek) efforts to murder Jews. Americans need to be reminded of history, because they tend not to believe in it. And we shouldn't be allowed to forget, either.

But couldn't there be a bit more range? The Rep did that Dalmatian/Croatian play a few seasons ago, and, OK, there probably aren't many suitable Sri Lankan tragedies. A cute Lithuanian comedy is doubtless hard to come by. The St. Louis Black Repertory Company handles its ethnic area with stunning variety and effectiveness, and the Rep has done August Wilson and Athol Fugard, too -- but not recently. Having given us a new Lanford Wilson play last fall should earn the Rep a major merit badge. A regional theater should show the region a lot more than most of them do. If there aren't a lot of Missouri or Iowa plays, then commission them. Arkansas ought to provide subject matter as grim and dismal as Ireland or a ghetto can. And Kansas has as much heart as Krakow or County Down.

So one shows up for The Beauty Queen of Leenane with a certain ho-hummy, haven't-we-been-here-before attitude: How and to what extent will a smothering, warm, ould-sod fug (the Britspeak version of "funk") overcome us? How many pots of tay will stew on the hob? How many times will people cross themselves? Surprisingly and mercifully, The Beauty Queen of Leenane and the Rep's production thereof presents a vision of Ireland far different from Brian Friel's. Leenane itself is a muddy, wet, cold place whose people, whether seen or only discussed, are, with one exception, wretched grotesques. Two, an old woman named Mag Folan (Pauline Flanagan) and a ghastly youth, Ray Dooley (brilliantly played by Kevin Henderson), seem to have been born grotesque. A third, Mag's daughter, Maureen (Giulia Pagano), has had grotesquerie thrust upon her. The fourth character, Ray's older brother, Pato (Matt Loney), is sweet and decent, and you can see why he lives in England.

The action concerns the love that arises between Maureen and Pato and its destruction and desecration by Mag, under the sway of her understandable and therefore all the more disgusting selfishness, abetted by Ray, who simply can't sit still long enough to do his duty. In his defense, Ray must sit still (or as still has he can) in the solitary presence of Mag, who emanates a moral stench that would gag a maggot. Watching Flanagan and Henderson work together is, as Pooh Bah remarks, modified rapture. She sits in her rocker like a large hunk of spoiled meat. He bounces around, at one point waving a heavy, portentous poker, like a piece of plastique that can't make up its mind where to explode.

Pagano and Loney present a similar though far more subdued contrast. Pagano's Maureen is often agitated, especially around her mother, who picks at her like a Wisconsin black fly would, and when she loses all her composure, as she does at one point with Loney's Pato, she seems to move from neurosis to insanity. Loney, on the other hand, plays Pato as a genuinely peaceful fellow -- occasionally understandably nervous or depressed -- and who wouldn't be, after a bout of impotence? One supposes that the playwright wants Pato to demonstrate an ordinary, mildly admirable normality, sensitive enough to appreciate Maureen's hectic vivacity but protected by an insensitivity and a natural gentlemanliness that prevent him from suffering too much from the way the love affair turns out. A lesser player would have made Pato about as interesting as a bottle of 2 percent milk. Loney, however, creates a gentle, lovable soul -- interesting not just in contrast to the other three characters but as a life force too useful to be destroyed by his hometown and townspeople.

A play directed by John Going is usually fast-moving, witty and clear-spoken, but The Beauty Queen of Leenane is not vintage Going. Flanagan and Pagano spent the play's first several minutes with terrible cases of mush mouth, and throughout the performance palpable, incomprehensible beats seemed to separate one actor's lines from another's. James Wolk's set looked like a neorealist painting -- elegantly spare, handsomely gray. I could have done without the real rain falling behind it. The Rep seems to have discovered water over the past year and is utilizing it the way a 14-year-old girl utilizes Kmart makeup. Remember the pool in last fall's Shakespeare? Well, the rain in this play isn't nearly as obtrusive, so perhaps our hypothetical girl had a birthday. Elizabeth Covey's costumes do well enough, and Michael Philippi's lights are mostly fine -- but why does sunshine show under the door in the midst of an evening scene?

The Beauty Queen of Leenane skirts the edges of mere nastiness -- a sneering, condescending, despising invidious humor more English than Irish. But the playwright, Martin McDonagh, is a young city man of limited experience from a straitened background. Given time, perhaps he will develop the humanism of his literary forerunners, Brendan Behan most especially, and learn to mix contempt born of fear and ignorance with some pity.

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