By Tyler Plosia
Maybe more than any other major contemporary playwright, Martin McDonagh is known for writing that dances in the spaces between laughter and violence. He has been called the Anglo-Irish Quentin Tarantino of the stage (the description is questionable at the very least; not only is there nearly a decade of separation between the two, but where Tarantino minimizes violence through stylization, McDonagh more often does so through through satirization). And while Martin McDonagh has written three Oscar-recognized films – including “Six Shooter”, the 2006 Live Action Short Film Academy Award winner – it’s his playwriting which best demonstrates the malleability and versatility of his pen.
While his stories might customarily conjure the bleakness of Harold Pinter or the morbid pleasure of John Millington Synge, watching The Lonesome West as it’s being performed at The Tank (directed by Ann Bowen) is more likely to bring to mind the physical comedy of the Marx Brothers. The West script revolves around two warring siblings: Valene, who’s just inherited his freshly-dead father’s entire (albeit meager) estate, and Coleman, his financially barren brother who did in fact shoot their freshly-dead father in the head. As Valene, actor Tom Pavey moves his face like a live-action Dr. Seuss character might, and a costume consisting of a thickly-striped shirt tucked into suspender-held corduroy pants doesn’t help. His brotherly foil, Coleman, is played less cartoonishly and with a little more depth by Goran Ivanovski, but I couldn’t help but feel that even he was pressured to move quickly and demonstratively in order to not upset the feel of the production.
At the end of the first act, I thought, all right, here’s one interpretation of West. It’s fast, farcical and fun, and even if it its exaggeration and pace reminded me of And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, I gave it the benefit of the doubt: it was approaching the thing from an unusual angle. But during the scene immediately following intermission, which is basically an admission of the forlorn Father Welsh character’s imminent suicide, I saw an unintended metaphor begin to form. On paper, the priest character is a maudlin sort (as Coleman and Valene often point out), but he also serves as a fragment of the shattered realism of the play: in a dark corner of west Ireland inhabited by fratricidal maniacs, Father Welsh reminds us that if we’re going to laugh at these characters, we’re going to have to laugh through clenched jaws. But at The Tank, things move too fast for this. Father Welsh ends up the butt of the joke instead of the voice of reason. McDonagh’s writing finds strength in its ability to shift and adapt given different settings, but in New York early this summer, The Lonesome West‘s grounded priest is swallowed whole by the fast-talking mouths of two madman brothers.