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A Skull in Connemara

Kevin Tighe, Christopher Evan Welch,
and Christopher Carley
in A Skull In Connemara
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Quick: Name a play in which a gravedigger picks up a skull and chats amusingly about its biodegradable owner. The answer, of course, is Hamlet, the skull is the late Yorick's and the scene is one of the most famous in dramatic literature. Now, name a play in which a gravedigger holds up two skulls. Stumped? It's A Skull in Connemara, the last of Martin McDonagh's Leenane trilogy to reach Manhattan.

That's right. The London-bred, Irish playwright has upped the ante on Shakespeare with yet another play wherein he palpates one of the most common and profound human emotions, hatred, for the blend of tragedy and comedy intrinsic to it--especially whenever familial interdependence comes into play. In The Beauty Queen of Leenane, it's a mother-daughter combo venting mutual abhorrence in a claustrophobic, "there-isn't-room-enough-here-for-both-of-us" atmosphere. In The Lonesome West it's two brothers who can't abide one another's quirks.

In A Skull in Connemara, once again, two brothers grapple on more than one charged occasion. (J. Stephen White is the production's fight director, and he has his work cut out for him.) The battling sibs are the lay about Mairtin Hanlon (Christopher Carley), who picks up the occasional quid as a gravedigger's assistant, and Thomas Hanlon (Christopher Evan Welch), a policeman who sees incriminating evidence everywhere except when it's right in front of his nose.

The gravedigger who juggles more than one skull at a time--actually, Mairtin does the same--is Mick Dowd (Kevin Tighe), who has lived by himself since his wife, Oona, died. Mick, sitting in gloomy rumination as the play gets underway, will admit to visitors that he was drunk when he drove his car into a wall and Oona was fatally injured. What he denies utterly (until he seems not to) is that he had whacked Oona over the head with a blunt instrument, as town gossips claim, before he piled her into his rickety vehicle and set forth on that unfortunate ride. The possibility of his guilt is mooted for much of the play's now meandering, now direct duration by Dowd, the Hanlon brothers, and Maryjohnny Rafferty (Zoaunne LeRoy), a local busybody who likes to stop by Mick's shanty for a few snorts of illegally brewed poteen. Their discussion of Oona's suspicious demise eventually develops into an unresolved mystery. Did Mick do it, or didn't he? Only his playwright knows for sure, and the question is debated amid flights of fanciful dialogue most aptly described these days as McDonagh-esque.

The playwright, you see, has come up with prose composed of equal parts Samuel Beckett, S. J. Perelman, and Abbott and Costello. At times having the quality of hardscrabble poetry, it's often highly stylized--so much so that viewers resistant to the blarney McDonagh calls speech find themselves judging it stereotypical. They have something there, don't ya know now, because many of the dramatist's lines end with the tacked-on conversational tic, "is it?" And many are the responses that begin, "It is." This is not to mention the characters' attenuated, churlish exchanges about the weather or the preferability of dying in a pool of one's own urine or a pool of someone else's.

Christopher Evan Welch and Zoaunne
LeRoy in A Skull In Connemara
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
There are ticket-buyers and subscription holders who can't look past the stereotyping; you hear them sighing in their seats or see them bolting at intermission. They're offended or, worse, they're bored; so they miss McDonagh's point and, also, his wry sense of fun. Since he began writing the Leenane series and the subsequent Inishmaan series, McDonagh has deployed his population of West Ireland folks, with their clichéd manners and mores, to create a world in which characters marked by heightened personality traits act out basic human conflicts.

Mick Dowd is one of them, attempting to examine his past quite literally. As McDonagh contrives it, Dowd performs annual exhumations to make room for newcomers to the graveyard, and the current crop of those exhumed includes his dearly departed wife. Shoveling dirt with tentative dispatch in the play's not entirely morbid second scene, Mick comes up empty when he finally pries open Oona's coffin. Her remains have been snatched! (FYI: To ease the actor's eight-times-a-week assignment, cork has been mixed in with the dirt. It's a show-biz trick.) The culprit responsible for the dastardly grave robbery only comes to light when Mairtin and Thomas--who have something of a Cain and Abel relationship, right down to the abruptly raised lethal weapon--test each other to the breaking point.

In McDonagh's estimation, the tedium of daily life masks its deep-seated drama. But while he gives his characters their rounds of repetitive, snappish gab, he's also subtly setting his plot (no pun on grave sites intended) in motion. With his four cantankerous characters goading each other over small things, McDonagh may appear to be twiddling his thumbs, but he isn't; he's setting a string of surprises in place. Though Maryjohnny may appear to have nothing on her mind other than finagling her next drink, she has her hunches about Mick's behavior and will eventually air them; Mairtin may seem no more than a late-adolescent trouble-maker, but he's keeping under wraps a few telltale facts to which he's privy; and though Thomas may give the impression of being a harmless official, his stupidity, combined with his determination to prove worthy by catching any and all criminals, has the potential for mayhem.

Since the surprises McDonagh uncorks as he heads towards a calculatedly ambiguous denouement are an inherent part of the play's eccentric effectiveness, none of them will be revealed here. It's enough to say that no seeming lull in the proceedings passes without a startling repercussion--or, should I say, concussion? The scheming playwright pulverizes expectations with the same intense glee that Mick and Mairtin exhibit as they pulverize the old bones they've dug up. And although blood flows and congeals, it's typical of McDonagh that he will send a shaft of light through the dark comedy by having the stunned Mairtin exclaim as the action winds down, "This has turned into a grand old day, this has!"

It's turned into a grand old play, as well. Under Gordon Edelstein's direction, everything that transpires here is riveting. David Gallo's set has the audience gaping even before the lights dim, since, in addition to the slightly abstract shanty he provides for Mick, he's hung an upside-down cemetery above the auditorium and seemingly stretched it to infinity. Call it Gallo's humor. The mood he sets is thickened by costume designer Susan Hilferty, lighting designer Michael Chybowski and, especially, sound designer Stephen LeGrand and Martin Hayes, who has supplied keening Irish fiddle music. Tom Watson has seen to the wig requirements, which won't be itemized here in line with the keeping of secrets.

Because the playwright's Leenane denizens let their passions run as if out of leaky faucets and get to hand out character-driven comedy lines like calling cards, actors must be tempted to twist themselves into pretzels if that's what it takes to be hired for any production of a McDonagh work. The four hanging around this nocturnal landscape have got everything demanded of them down pat: They lay out the laughs as if they're on a high-tech assembly line, suggesting just the right blend of anger, resignation, and bemusement at being caught so inextricably in the human condition. Zoaunne LeRoy, smoothing her cheap housedress in between drinks, is a dour delight. Christopher Evan Welch, with his jet-black hair slicked across his low forehead, manages to make Thomas's ignorant drive both frightening and pathetic.

Christopher Carley
in A Skull In Connemara
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
As the frustrated bully Mairtin, carrot-topped Christopher Carley gives the kind of tenacious, snarling performance a pit bull might give if it were able to memorize and speak lines. Last, but by no means least, the big, lumbering Kevin Tighe walks the line between wronged innocence and still-at-large guilt that McDonagh has written so deftly. His Mick is a man whose moods change at the drop of a hat: He can get a huge boot out of convincing Mairtin that male corpses aren't buried with their willies still attached, then turn brutal when Mairtin becomes too talkative in his cups.

With A Skull in Connemara Martin McDonagh teases audiences' brains while making them laugh their heads off. He means it when he posits that people are mean, but he's also damnably funny when he shows that they're damnably funny. If you're willing to accept this slowly delivered message, you'll laugh till your blood runs cold.


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