Arts » Theater

The Booze Brothers: Fraternal Animosity Fueled by Hooch Boils Over in The Lonesome West



If there's anything worse than being lonely by yourself, it's being lonely with another person, or other people. Because when you feel lost and abandoned in the company of others, you really have no good options.

That's the serious side of The Lonesome West by Martin McDonagh, a play that is darkly hilarious much of the time. It's part of the playwright's "Leenane Trilogy," which also includes The Beauty Queen of Leenane and A Skull in Connemara. Lonesome is a juicy feast for actors who know how to plumb the depths of human dysfunction while keeping the laughs flowing.

Happily, the None Too Fragile Theater four-person cast is up to the task. They craft a pair of relationships that are dramatically different in their details but share a common thread of desperation — one quiet and tender, the other foul-mouthed and violent.

Middle-aged brothers Coleman and Valene share a small house in Leenane, on the west coast of Ireland (thus the title), but "share" is a word with which they're not too acquainted. Valene is possessive about his supply of the potent hooch poteen, not to mention his chips, his magazines and his new stove, which he has marked with a "V" to keep his brother away.

Coleman is no prize either, sneaking gulps of poteen when he can and attending local funerals for the snacks they provide. Fortunately for his caloric intake, there are deaths aplenty in Leenane, with the suicide of a local man and Coleman's "accidental" shooting of his and Valene's father the most recent examples.

Director Sean Derry knows this quasi-mystical Irish turf well, and excels both onstage as Coleman and offstage as the director, a duty he shares with Alanna Romansky. Derry's Coleman is a barely functional doofus with a mean streak and a short fuse. In short, he's "Likes To Fight Guy," the one you steer clear of in a bar after he's had a few.

But there's no avoiding him in this claustrophobic little room, where Andrew Narten as Valene matches Derry's hair-trigger volatility, and then some. Narten and Derry wield McDonagh's machine-gun dialogue like master marksmen. And while some of the Irish slang flies by too fast to catch, enough of it lands to keep the audience both stunned and in stitches for most of the proceedings.

The two grown-up boys fight periodically during the show, and their wrestling matches bristle with genuine muscularity that can't be faked when the audience is just a couple steps away. Those fights, like all the confrontations in Lonesome, have the ring of truth that makes the black humor ignite even more fiercely than it otherwise might.

Inserted into this troubling family dynamic is Father Welsh, the alcoholic priest who wants nothing more than to bring some peace to this fraternal Armageddon. Of course, he knows and we know that his hopes are doomed, even when a local lass nicknamed Girleen tries to reach out to him.

As Welsh, Robert Branch nicely underplays this non-stop tippler who has lost faith in the priesthood. His scene with Jenny Sherman, who plays Girleen, is achingly sweet even in the face of Welsh's dead-end existence. And Welsh's final monologue, while not the best piece of writing in the play, still resonates effectively as performed by Branch.

Actually, the entire play is kind of a setup for the final scene between Coleman and Valene, and it delivers in spades. The blotto brothers come together to make amends: Coleman apologizing for melting all of Valene's treasured Virgin Mary figurines in the oven, Valene saying sorry for hoarding his liquor and snacks.

And on it goes, with the apologies becoming more and more revealing. They pry the scabs off long-ago slights and pranks as boys, then escalate to reveal life-changing tricks that affected each of their lives, until the conversation once again erupts into violence, this time with a firearm. These are two men trapped in their own vicious cycle of love and hate, sprinkled generously with immaturity and alcohol. But hey, you gotta find something to do on a slow night in Leenane, right?

The comically macabre dance of these two brothers, augmented by the wistful relationship between Father Welsh and Girleen, provide a journey into loneliness that would seem almost suffocating if it weren't for the playwright's bracing sense of humor. Thankfully, that humor is laced through every scene, making The Lonesome West both an entertaining divergence and a rueful meditation on the meaning of loneliness — and how even continual fighting can, for some, help ward off the demons.

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