The Irish writer/filmmaker Martin McDonagh has a talent for mining the comedic potential of violence and bad behavior.
His work flirts with appallingly dark subjects with hilarious results, and among his many gifts is an ability to strike multiple targets at the same time with blunt force, leaving his characters bruised and bloodied and the audience in stitches. McDonagh's tone often tracks toward that of his American contemporaries Quentin Tarantino and the early plays of Tracy Letts, and he shares their penchant for verbose down-and-outers, but McDonagh's brand of mayhem (which can go toe-to-toe with Tarantino's when it comes to reveling in profanities), manages to maintain a sophisticated if not quite polite veneer, a kind of European polish that makes his works palatable to those who would steer clear of The Hateful Eight or Killer Joe.
The Lonesome West, written in 1997 as the final chapter in what's known as the Leenane Trilogy (after the small Irish coastal town where they take place -- the other plays are The Beauty Queen of Leenane and A Skull in Connemara), isn't one of McDonagh's stronger plays -- there's a structural problem in the second act and one of its four characters turns out to be mostly superfluous -- but there are pleasures to be found within its plot featuring a well-meaning young priest trying to mediate the escalating, hilariously petty bickering between two brothers whose father was recently killed.
Lest you have any lingering idea The Lonesome West might be the kind of warm Irish family drama that pops up in your local cinema with regularity every fall, know the priest is a self-doubting, ineffective alcoholic; the father's death came "accidentally" at the hands of one of the brothers, both of whom bear a homicidal dislike for each other; popping in from time to time is a young girl who sells them hooch, or potcheen as the locals call it, and she has a major crush on the priest.
Although the audience eventually learns what happened to their father, the mystery is in the root of the brothers' hatred for each other, and the fun is in the insane lengths they'll go to maintain it. That's what drives The Lonesome West and it's also what holds the audience's interest over its two-plus hours in a production now onstage at D.C.'s Keegan Theatre. It eventually pays off handsomely when the two brothers sit down with a bottle of potcheen between them and begin to apologize for a lifetime's worth of grudges held fast and misdeeds perpetrated against the other. The climactic scene builds into an epic game of one-upmanship, each revelation more horrifying and funny than the last.
Directed with confidence in the play's internal rhythm by Keegan's Artistic Director Mark Rhea on a well-designed set by Matthew Keenan (who also plays the vain, trigger-happy brother Coleman with glee), the first rate cast features Bradley Foster Smith as the more unhinged and amusingly pious brother Valene, Chris Stezin as Father Welsh, and Sarah Chapin as Girleen. The play wraps up the company's 19th season -- it was my first visit to the surprisingly comfortable theater off Dupont Circle, but it won't be the last. See it.