YOU'LL LAUGH! You'll cry! You'll have a heart attack! -- such a slogan might find itself happily attached to "The Pillowman," playing at the Booth Theatre on Broadway, Martin McDonagh's arresting comedy-horror show (as in cardiac arrest -- it's quite the thriller).
But this wicked brew of humor and Grand Guignol is nothing new for the Irish writer, as audiences of his first play, "The Beauty Queen of Leenane," at the Keegan Theatre, will quickly discover. All of what would become hallmarks of McDonagh's career are present in this tale of a lonely middle-aged woman (Nanna Ingvarsson) and the live-in mum who terrorizes her (Linda High): a bleak, rain-soaked landscape, bracing humor and equally bracing moments of horror.
"It's one of those plays; you just have to see it," says Mark Rhea, Keegan's artistic director, who's a fan of McDonagh's shock and awe campaign but is even more impressed by "Beauty Queen's" elegiac undercurrents. "There's much more depth here. It's much more to me about the desolate life of these women in rural Ireland who have nowhere else to go." It's not for nothing that the play, which Rhea directs, has often been compared to Sartre's "No Exit," but there's nary a hint of the intellectual exercise in "Beauty Queen." In fact, the stagecraft evokes nostalgia for an earlier period of playmaking, when gripping characters and well-told stories were the rule rather than the exception. Which is somewhat remarkable when you consider that McDonagh wrote the drama in 1996, in just eight days and at the tender age of 26.
"He's the American version of [David] Mamet in a way," Rhea says. "Nasty, sharp, crisp conversations almost on top of each other, that kind of thing." But McDonagh's work is no "Kilkenny Glen Ross." Like Ireland itself, whose small size in no way prefigured its enormous contributions to world drama, "Beauty Queen" spins gold out of an economy of means.
"The Irish just seem to know how to write tragicomedy better than anyone," Rhea says. "Horrible stories that are funny at the same time. It's just the way they are. They're full of life."