By Lynn Venhaus
Two oil-and-water grown brothers, Valene and Coleman Connor, constantly bicker and fight like two Rock ‘em, Sock ‘em Robots – but real physical and psychological damage takes place in “The Lonesome West.”
That’s a calling card of Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, whose works, often involving dysfunction, are mostly bleak, dark, and if a pitch-black comedy, outrageously funny.
Such is the case in West End Players Guild’s hardscrabble production, running through May 8, of McDonagh’s 1997 play, part of his Connemara trilogy (Tony winner “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” and “A Skull in Connemara” being the others). It was Tony nominated for Best Play in 1999, when it transferred to Broadway.
The middle-aged brothers escalate violence over the most mundane things – such as bags of Taytos’ ‘crisps’ (chips). Think “The Odd Couple,” only more gruesome and foul-mouthed.
While McDonagh’s contemporary play is not as well-constructed as Sam Shepard’s “True West” about two battling brothers that at times, resembles a Looney Tunes’ roadrunner and coyote cartoon, the material is suitable for an acting showcase.
And WEPG rises to the challenges, with strong production values and outstanding performances.
It’s just that hurling insults gets tedious, and the story has no where to go after two and a half hours.
The amount of physicality required of Jeff Kargus as Valene and Jason Meyers as Coleman is enormous, and they are ferocious onstage, with a toughness and single-mindedness that is stunning.
Their agility in movement is matched by their full immersion into the Irish dialect, which is superb all throughout the two-act drama-comedy.
The remarkable dexterity Kargus and Meyers display as these difficult characters indicates much dedication to getting all aspects right. One must note the superb work of fight director and weapons supervisor Michael Monsey for his intense choreography.
Kargus, never better, has long passages of dialogue to deliver as the more sympathetic and dutiful brother, as Meyers’s Coleman is maniacal, likely a psychopath, has shot his father and will likely kill again – and no one would be surprised if Valene was his target.
Shades of Cain and Abel, and that is not a joke. Both are examples of arrested development, but Connor is a one-note character compared to Valene. As the hot-head, Meyers outbursts of rage quickly build in a matter of seconds, but he is not always convincing in depicting menace. He’s downright cruel about his brother’s religious figurines – and you’ll find out about the dog soon enough.
Valene isn’t entirely innocent, for they have antagonized and done horrible things to each other over the years. Kargus does a fine job conveying his character’s peculiarities perfectly, including a fascination with the old ABC western “Alias Smith and Jones,” which ran for three seasons from 1971-73, patterned after the wildly popular film “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Apparently, it made a huge impact on Valene as a youth (or maybe home video).
The reason it is brought up in conversation is part of a bigger discussion on suicide, and whether the individual goes to heaven or hell. The Catholic Church believes those who kill themselves do not ascend to heaven, although there is some debate.
When a rash of suicides in the small town take place, people talk. Which leads to the old TV show discussion, because actor Peter Duel, 31, died of a self-inflicted gunshot after the first season.
That’s only one of the stream-of-conscience discussions in the shabby abode where the brothers live in the rural town of Leenane, in County Galway, where there is a shocking underbelly of mayhem and far too many strange-circumstances fatalities.
Scenic designer Brad Slavik has fashioned a very specific kitchen-living room combo with splendid detail while Frank Goudsmit’s props establish how the brothers live in an old farmhouse.
Tony Anselmo’s lighting design reflects the different moods and a more unsettling nighttime, while Jenn Ciaverella manages a sharp sound design – the Chieftains’s folk music is a good choice to play before the show and during intermission.
Under Robert Ashton’s fluid direction, the ensemble works together well, with Ted Drury as the hapless local priest Father Welsh and Hannah Geisz as Girleen Kelleher. Their comic timing is crisp, as is their ability to not break character, no matter how daffy or audacious the dialogue sounds.
Drury’s booze-swilling, advice-giving priest is hell-bent on saving the brothers’ relationship, but realizes it’s hopeless, and his despair is palpable.
Ashton has included a handy reference sheet to explain some of the Irish terms, such as poteen – meaning moonshine. You’ll see the men drinking copious amounts of the hooch, which is made from potatoes.
McDonagh, an Oscar nominee for writing “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” doesn’t seem to have an endgame here, which is frustrating, but at least what WEPG does with it is impressive.
West End Players Guild presents Martin McDonagh’s “The Lonesome West” from April 29 through May 8 at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union in the Central West End. For more information or tickets, visit westendplayers.org
The West End Players Guild is employing touchless ticketing, socially-distanced seating and indoor masking of all patrons, front of house staff and volunteers.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.