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Fraternal Disorder 

A tight, oddly beautiful fable built from the bare elements of kinship and war

Wednesday, Jul 2 2003
One thing about being Catholic, says Coleman to his brother and archenemy, Valene, in the sooty kitchen of their house in the west of Ireland, is that you get to confess your sins. "Sure I can shoot me own dad's head off an' still go to heaven," he says, "as long as I'm really sorry." Coleman has, in fact, just shot his dad's head off. The mood around the house is understandably tense, and the brothers wage a long-running, petty war over stashes of poteen (potato whiskey), insurance money, and potato chips.

Hoping to mediate is Father Welsh, a brooding young priest with his own taste for poteen. "If it's your own brother you can't get along with," he says glumly to Coleman, "how can we ever hope for peace in the world?"

The Lonesome West is Martin McDonagh's caustic parable of war and peace, set in the western town of Leenane (like his A Skull in Connemara and The Beauty Queen of Leenane), where killing the relatives is a kind of sport to cut the boredom. McDonagh's so-called Leenane trilogy premiered in Galway in the late '90s and then moved to London, establishing him as a hot young thing in a theater scene he apparently wanted nothing to do with. His plays are like songs by the Pogues -- road accidents between Irish tradition and a pissed-off punk sensibility.

Coleman is a shambling, lazy bum, persecuted by the organized, efficient Valene ever since their father's death. Coleman shot off the old man's head for no worse a crime than insulting his haircut; Valene was the only witness. He has convinced Coleman to say it was an accident in order to collect insurance money. Valene controls this money and spends it on poteen, chips, a new oven, and a colorful collection of plastic saint figurines. The whole setup is torture for Coleman. He goes after Valene now and then with the shotgun, telling Father Welsh that his brother is so cheap "he'd steal the shite out of a burnin' pig." But Welsh is too upset by his own crises of faith -- and his feelings for a cute local teenager named Girleen -- to keep the peace.

The best Welsh can do is turn into a Christ figure, and the second act consists mainly of a long, funny scene of truth and reconciliation. Coleman and Valene rehearse their history of mutual sins, going back to childhood, and apologize. (They are, after all, Catholic.) Whether they're redeemed is another matter.

You may read in other newspapers that The Lonesome West is derivative, since McDonagh owes debts to Mamet, Shepard, Synge, and Tarantino. (Shepard's True West is the obvious model for this play.) But pushing that line overlooks what McDonagh has done with his feuding brothers. He's built a tight, oddly beautiful fable from the bare elements of kinship and war. The Lonesome West will hold up as its own brand of Irish parable as long as actors know how to bitch at each other, and Phil Stockton (as Coleman) and Robert Parsons (as Valene) play the battling factions with an elegant savagery, moving from raucous hatred to affection and back.

Director Barbara Damashek has some pacing trouble; all her actors do well with the heavy accent, but the strain of it seems to slow them down, especially in Act 1. Craig Neibaur can't always find a center of gravity as Father Welsh, the wilting flower, in an atmosphere as harsh as the brothers' house. (He does better in the quieter scenes with Girleen, played by Frances Anita Rivera.) I've never seen Rivera before -- she's a recent ACT master's graduate -- but she brings to Girleen a perfect mix of girlish warmth and potty-mouthed ferocity.

There is something formulaic about McDonagh's plays; they all seem to have the same bickering cast of Irish rustics, not to mention a pretty, young, potty-mouthed girleen. Local audiences may have caught The Beauty Queen of Leenane at the Berkeley Rep four years ago and, if they were diligent, A Skull in Connemara in San Jose last year. The Lonesome West is more of the same.

I don't think it's dated, though. Even if you've pretty much got the idea of McDonagh, and even if he seems to you like last decade's fashion, The Lonesome West is worthwhile; it's still refreshing to watch a play written so close to the bone. American critics ignore or miss the fact that Ireland remains a divided land, like Israel. McDonagh never refers to the Troubles, and The Lonesome West is not an allegory, but that makes the simple fact of his feuding brothers all the more powerful. The Irish don't need to be reminded about their own civil war.


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