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A sense of humor Irish play offers a taste of dark comedy

If it were up to the New Phoenix Theatre, Buffalo might be a small Irish town on the outskirts of Dublin, or maybe nestled deep in County Galway. The off-beat theater, of late, has been compelled to produce a number of dark and claustrophobic Irish dramas by the likes of Conor McPherson ("The Seafarer) and Martin McDonagh ("The Pillowman").

The company's next production, McDonagh's "The Beauty Queen of Leenane," falls neatly into this category and may, in fact, be the darkest yet. The show, which opens Thursday, takes place entirely in the ramshackle kitchen of a small house in the Irish town of Leenane. New York Times critic Peter Marks called it "a kind of 'Glass Menagerie' of the damned."

The classic kitchen-sink drama centers around the mean-spirited and emotionally manipulative relationship between a 70-something woman named Mag and her spinster daughter, Maureen. It's full of the sort of spite and bile normally found in Rob Zombie films -- a talent McDonagh tempers with his own unique brand of Irish-tinted black humor.

For Joe Natale, who directs the show, McDongah's play works because it's imbued with a certain kind of Irish poetry and humor that keeps the action from gravitating too far toward the dark side.

"The Irish language is so scintillating," Natale said of McDonagh's script. "I love the way it's written, in spite of its dark and Gothic theme. As I read the play over and over again, I came to the notion that there's a great humor in it. Though bizarre, there is humor still."

Mag, the emotionally manipulative character at the center of the play, exacts a steep toll on anyone brave enough to attempt the character. And for longtime local actor Mary Loftus, 73, it's no different.

"As a matter of fact, I had to spend all Sunday in bed," Loftus said of the role's tough demands. And as for the character of Mag herself, Loftus added: "She's the old lady you would like to have killed many years ago. . . . She's a monstrous kind of woman."

The show also features Betsy Bittar as Maureen, Eric Rawski as Ray Dooley (who provides most of the comic relief) and John Kreuzer as Pato Dooley, who develops a fleeting relationship with Maureen that Mag does everything in her power to quash. The production was originally scheduled to debut on Feb. 12, but was postponed when actor Patrick Quinlan fell became ill. Fortunately, Kreuzer (coincidentally, Rawski's cousin) was available to step into the role.

The action takes place entirely in one small room, lending to the production a deep and disturbing sense of claustrophobia that could be read as a metaphor for the character's psyches and even Ireland itself.

"The characters are trapped, Ireland's trapped by England, and there are very vivid references to the conflict between Ireland and England in the show," Natale said. "The whole milieu is a trap, the physical milieu outside the house and the house itself. And the two women are trapped in themselves and maybe don't even know that."

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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PREVIEW

WHAT: "The Beauty Queen of Leenane"

WHEN: Thursday through March 14

WHERE: New Phoenix Theatre, 95 Johnson Park.

TICKETS: $15 to $20; pay what you can on Thursdays

INFO: 853-1334 or www.newphoenixtheatre.com

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