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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at Lyceum Theatre, New York

By Robert Simonson


With the 2004-05 season's The Pillowman, Martin McDonagh burnished his reputation as a playwright, producing a compelling, layered fable about the disfiguring power of violence and the transforming power of storytelling. With this past season's The Lieutenant of Inishmore, he reminded us that his reputation was quite in need of some burnishing.

I realize I'm on shaky ground here, since the entire New York critical establishment seems to regard McDonagh as possessed of a theatrical talent so natural and visceral it almost passeth understanding. It's an opinion that's confounded me since seeing his first New York success, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, a workmanlike bit of Irish naturalism that could have been written in the 1950s but for a lot of "feck"s and the employment of sensationalist Tarentino-like props like a red hot stovetop and a deftly swung fire iron. These surface touches and the dramatic tremors they communicated lent the work a spurious edge and earned McDonagh praise as a brave and modern writer.

It was recently revealed in a New York profile by Fintan O'Toole that McDonagh wrote all of his plays during one fevered, nine-month period in 1994, when he was in his early '20s, and then rolled them out over an extended time period. He said he now thought "all the plays have the sensibility of a young man." True, indeed. Young men confuse shock with substance, lean on a blue vocabulary to lend spice to the dialogue, and throw in an appalling atrocity when there's not a lot else in the plot to hold an audience's attention. (He apparently returned to The Pillowman  at a later date, explaining the contrasting maturity of that work.)

There's more atrocity than usual in Lieutenant, for McDonagh is fooling with terrorists and their kin. The premise--that the heralded "freedom fighters" of an IRA splinter group are actually unredeemable sociopaths--reeks with potential. In this day and age, every bloody "cause" is ripe for unmasking as nothing but vengeful mayhem. But critics who convinced themselves that McDonagh had written something as intellectually complex as "the first farce about terrorism" were trafficking in serious self-delusion. The terrorist angle only allows McDonagh a freer reign on his patented artistic hooliganism and gutter-black humor. This all sets the stomach churning and nerves tingling, but stirs no brain tissue, any more than Tarentino's movies make you think about anything other than movies and moviemaking.

The men and women in Lieutenant, like those in other McDonagh works, lead abjectly pointless existences. This might come off as a commentary on contemporary society if the playwright's intentions didn't seem as hollow. Like his characters, without a "feck" and a gun, he's got little to say. McDonagh stated that, when writing The Lieutenant of Inishmore, he was aiming for a script that might get him killed. A work of artistic depth evidently didn't occur to him. For McDonagh, effect is all. He'll leave it to the critics to insinuate any concomitant profundity.


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