David Anthony Fox David Anthony Fox has been a theater critic for City Paper since 1999. By day, he runs academic programs and teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, and in his copious free time, he writes and lectures on various topics in the arts. He also blogs on theater and culture at recliningstandards.org.
Even before Lantern Theater Co. 's A Skull in Connemara starts, you know you're in Martin McDonagh Land. Is it the large cottage room with fireplace that should look inviting but somehow doesn't? The shabby attempts at creature comfort (record player, pea-green Barcalounger) that just make the place seem sadder? The large crucifix hanging over all of it? Dirk Durossette's superb set has it all, as well as a pickax hanging from the ceiling beams. There's even a graveyard that seems to be swallowing up home and hearth, which pretty much says it all.
You see, Mick Dowd, a sad-sack widower in the tiny community of Leenane in Connemara, Ireland, picks up extra cash by emptying graves from the overcrowded church cemetery, so new occupants can be accommodated. (The clergy are aware of this and mostly look the other way — remember, this is a Martin McDonagh play.) It's a dirty job, and it may be that Mick also has a dirty secret: He was a drunk driver in a car accident that killed his wife, and town gossip has it that there was more to it. Anyway, Mick plows along, willing to mind his own business as long as nobody bothers him. But it doesn't quite work that way. Instead, he suffers interruptions galore. There's Mary, a local busybody/bingo enthusiast, and Thomas, a wily but creepy cop. Most of all, there's Mairtin, the oafish village lad who occasionally works for Mick, and is prone to putting his foot in it — sometimes with shocking consequences.
Skull, the second play in McDonagh's Connemara trilogy, may be the least frequently performed of this wildly popular writer's canon. There's a reason for that — Skull lacks some of the thrust and craftsmanship of his best works, and goes on a bit too long. And of course, Hamlet set rather a high bar for darkly comic depictions of grave-digging.
Still, McDonagh's gleeful excesses are here in abundance. Not exactly the king of understatement, McDonagh is surprisingly modest in his title. I counted at least three skulls here, not to mention bones galore. How those remains are disposed of is a dazzlingly virtuosic display of comedic writing, and here Skull really delivers.
As with all McDonagh, the greatest fun is watching him systematically annihilate the iconic themes and stereotypes of traditional Irish plays. Not for him the noble suffering of the poor; nor the strong matriarchs whose tough love and near-to-godly goodness holds families together; nor even religious faith that can partially redeem lost souls. This is a brutal world of drunks, cheats, liars and idiots. And it's a very funny place. The script is full of hilarious digressions and non sequiturs that shock and amuse in equal measure.
Yes, Skull is a comedy, occasionally even a farce. And on that level, Lantern's production, co-directed by M. Craig Getting and Kathryn MacMillan, has terrific moments, especially in Act 2. But on opening night, the long expository sections of Act 1 dragged a bit, and lacked easy conversational flow, and a couple of key performances — Jake Blouch as Mairtin and Jered McLenigan as Thomas — were funny but one-note. (McLenigan is brave and bold, but too often seems to be playing sketch comedy.) Across the board, Skull needs to be painted in darker colors, with something sinister underscoring the humor.
But the show still delivers, and Stephen Novelli (Mick) gives a nuanced performance with exactly the right blend of light and shadow. This was the rare production where flaws that were noticeable at the time seemed less in retrospect — and the highs of the evening seemed even better the day after. Through Feb. 13, $28-$36, Lantern Theater Co. at St. Stephen's Theater, 923 Ludlow St., 215-829-0395, lanterntheater.org.
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