Killer Comedy

The Lonesome West brings Martin McDonagh's bloodlust to the Naked Stage.

The men and women who nominate things for Tony Awards are probably very smart and very, very cultured. These people know why all Playbills look alike. Perhaps they've noshed on lobster poached in vanilla cognac at Le Cirque, or truffle risotto at Masa. Maybe they've figured out why Bernadette Peters doesn't have wrinkles. In any case, they know what's up.

Yes, up — in the circumscribed world of New York theater. But maybe they don't know what's down. Because these same cultured artfolk in 1999 nominated The Lonesome West for Best Play, which suggests they either have their heads up their asses, a profound disrespect for human life, or an extreme dearth of decent plays to patronize.

John Manzelli (left) and Antonio Amadeo: What's a little bloodlust between brothers?
John Manzelli (left) and Antonio Amadeo: What's a little bloodlust between brothers?

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Written by Martin McDonagh. With Adam Simpson, Antonio Amadeo, John Manzelli, and Katherine Amadeo. Through February 17. The Naked Stage at the Pelican Theatre, 11300 NE 2nd Ave, Miami Shores; 866-811-4111, www.nakedstage.org.

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Not that The Lonesome West is poorly written, and not that the new production at the Naked Stage on the Barry University campus isn't well done. It's a fine achievement — well acted, funny, engaging — and intermittently moving. But for once it appears playwright Martin McDonagh's bloodlust has overtaken his dramatic instincts. This is bad, because a bloodlust as prodigious as McDonagh's needs a great story to be worth the plasma. The last locally staged McDonagh joint, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, required director Joe Adler to come up with something like nine gallons of fake blood per performance. That was all right, because the muck worked in service of a profound inquisition into the political and spiritual bankruptcy of a certain kind of Irishman, framed by a story as grand as it was guignol. The Lonesome West doesn't have that. Here the poles are reversed, and the story is in service to the violence. This ought to be disturbing to anybody who cares about why a given play exists.

Alas, there aren't many of us, and this is a late date to be delivering a referendum on McDonagh's morals. The Lonesome West is 11 years old, and I might be the first person to gripe. Everybody else seems twitterpated by McDonagh's humor and the way he can draw vivid characters that breathe fresh fire into the actors who inhabit them. I've never seen Antonio Amadeo, Adam Simpson, or especially John Manzelli so captivated by their work, nor have I ever seen them turn in performances so strong. (Katherine Amadeo, the show's lone female, seems as misplaced here as Kim Morgan Dean did in Inishmore, which makes me wonder if McDonagh is a flop with the chicks.) Manzelli's great gift is the way his body remains still while his face betrays a mind gunning for action. With Manzelli playing one of two inexplicably violent brothers in the inexplicably violent Irish village of Leenane, that gift is more at home in The Lonesome West than I've ever seen it. Manzelli is like a gun with a hidden hair-trigger. That's certainly worth something, but how much?

The Lonesome West is the story of brothers Valene and Coleman (A. Amadeo and Manzelli) trying and failing to cohabitate in the wake of their father's "accidental" death by shotgun. I don't mind putting accidental in quotes — the press releases do it too, and even if Coleman hadn't intentionally blown off his daddy's head with a shotgun and entrusted Valene with the secret, he'd be just about the only nonmurderer in all of Leenane. The parish priest, Father Welsh (Simpson), is aware he's preaching in, as he terms it, "the murder capital of fecking Europe," and he's not thrilled about it. In fact he's downright maudlin. As Valene points out, "A great parish it is you run. One of them murdered his missus, an ax through her head, the other her mammy. A poker took her brains out." Welsh replies, "It seems God has no jurisdiction in this town — no jurisdiction at all."

So Welsh turns to drinking, while the brothers nearly kill each other, over and over. Until they do, they seem destined to remain mired in petty squabbles over what belongs to whom. For keeping Coleman's secret, Valene has corralled his brother into signing over their daddy's meager estate, and much of The Lonesome West is devoted to watching Valene deny his brother booze, access to the stove, and potato crisps. Neither seems to have any occupation, nor does anybody ever float the idea of going out and finding one. The only people who are gainfully employed in Leenane seem to be Father Welsh (who obviously sucks at his job and seems suicidally depressed at all times), the local constable (who does not put in an appearance, and who kills himself before Act I is over), and perhaps local teenager Girleen (K. Amadeo), who peddles booze from her backpack (and who nevertheless deeply mourns the passing of said constable, who apparently never gave her any guff over her dubious entrepreneurship). Perhaps this is the norm in small Irish villages, though I doubt it. More likely, McDonagh thought filling a town with hateful people who spend all day doing hateful things to one another was a damn good starting point for a rollicking drama. Maybe he was right. The Tony Awards committee thought so.

But I don't. I laughed more during The Lonesome West than I did during the other four obvious comedies running in South Florida right now — The Little Dog Laughed, Altar Boyz, Suite Surrender, and Tall Grass — but the laughter was generated by the same emotion that once moved people to guffaw at circus freaks. McDonagh's stature in the theater world — along with the automatic cred given to vibrant young companies attempting "edgy," "daring" work — endows this piece of witty excrement with a high art patina that it simply doesn't deserve. I'll accept murder for art's sake, but for fun? I thought that's why Ireland had the IRA. And even that's passé now.

 
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