One of the things I like to do after seeing a play, or less often a movie, is to go on the Internet, to find out how eminent critics reacted to what I myself had recently experienced.
Why do I do that? I am not exactly sure. I realize that reactions to artistic endeavors are inevitably subjective. I mean, I know it’s not math.
“I got ‘seventy-one, remainder two.’”
“The correct answer is ‘one hundred and twenty-seven, remainder six.’”
In mathematics, you always know where you stand. Everyone gets the same answer… except the people who get it wrong. Some of them, I suppose, could have imaginably gotten the same answer as well, but it would have been equally incorrect. Though they’d have made interesting company – kindred spirits in mathematical inaccuracy.
With plays and other artistic endeavors it’s different. “Chacun a son gout…” as they say. “One man’s meat is another man’s…something bearing not the slightest resemblance to meat whatsoever and could actually kill you.”
“Everyone’s entitled to their opinion.” Which is fine. Except…
What if those opinions are not all equally accurate?
You have hit shows, you have hit movies. “The Critics Agree!!!” (Which, you will notice, is never followed by, “They all think it stinks!”) Though still an artistic endeavor, there is no random distribution of reactions. The vast majority is in demonstrable agreement.
I am not concerned with the populace at large. I mean, look what they did when we mistakenly gave them the vote. I refer instead to the authoritative critics, people making their livings telling regular people what to think. Although far from mathematical unanimity, the critics may, in some evaluations, be in virtual agreement.
So we go see The Beauty Queen of Leenane by Martin McDonagh, whom Wikipedia calls “one of the most important living Irish playwrights”, though the way Wikipedia works, anyone could have put that in there. Possibly even Martin McDonagh. And its continuing presence suggests he did not insist that they take it out.
A tyrannically controlling mother and a fortyish (what they used to call) spinster duke in out in a remote, rain-drenched Irish hovel. Fine. At least it’s not an Irish play about “De Troobles.” There’ll be nobody coomin’ to the door announcin’ that their I.R.A-sympathizing boyo’s been “mordered” by de blewdy Brettish. Which is a relief, at least to one anonymous squeamish theatergoer.
The first act, for me – and for my mercifully likeminded marital companion – goes smoothly enough, if you exclude our struggling difficulty deciphering the impenetrable Galway dialect. Where is “Closed Captioning” when you need it?
Act One follows the appropriate roadmap. Mother and daughter go at it hammer and tongs, a possible suitor arrives on the scene threatening to muck up the symbiotic relationship and we’re off to the races.
The dialogue is sharp and mordantly funny. The ensemble acting is wonderful. The intermission’s on time, by which I mean a scene ends and I think, “The lights should go on now”, and they do.
The show is fine and everyone’s happy.
You come back for Act Two, and after a promising beginning – an exquisitely written monolog letter recitation – it’s like the writer had a doctor’s appointment and had to polish things off quickly before dashing away. I mean, start to finish, what we’ve got here is a cliché. But now, everything suddenly feels rushed, or glossed over, or unrealistic or shockingly thin. The story points are all covered, but it is only a veneer.
Where the first act at least engaged us with its splendid acting and seemingly accurate repartee – though an actual resident might complain, “It’s a bit mooch, I’d be thinkin’” – the second act felt like a staged outline, the writer imagining he would flesh things out later but is subsequently persuaded – or persuaded himself – he was finished.
Final Evaluation: A long drive for not all that mooch.
We come home. I go to the computer. I type in, “New York Times Beauty Queen of Leenane review.” And there it is, written by Ben Brantley, jefe of the Times theatrical reviewing constituency.
Out-of-context extractions, although easily construed:
“stunning new play… a proper, perfectly plotted drama that sets out, above all, to tell a story as convincingly and disarmingly as possible… nearly everything feels organic, an inevitable outgrowth of character and environment… there’s not a single hole in the play’s structural or emotional logic, and yet it constantly surprises…”
Are we talking about the same play? Everything happened that I expected to happen, some of it in too great of a hurry. The play is virtually a satire of the genre. (Spoiler Alert: The monster mother does not do in the frustrated daughter.)
McDonagh wrote his first play Beauty Queen when he was twenty-seven years old. But instead of “Promising debut; keep going”, the critics lauded him to the heavens, catapulting him to instantaneous success.
(Note: L.A. Times theater critic, Charles McNulty, while praising McDonagh as a “wicked dramatic stylist” admitting about the original production, “I was not among its ardent champions” discovers that the current production “has not convinced me that I missed the boat the first time around”, making him a qualified naysayer but, knowing he is massively outnumbered, almost apologetic about saying nay.)
People in large numbers – highly regarded people at that – see something exciting where you don’t. Makes you want to Windex your evaluative bifocals. While residually wondering who exactly got things closer to the truth.
I know it’s not math.
But can one person’s “black” really be another one’s “luminous white”?
The play is “waffer thin”, I tell you.
But that is apparently a minority opinion.