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Sunday, July 16, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ex-bad boy playwright edges back into spotlight

Seattle Times theater critic

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Theater preview

"A Skull in Connemara," by Martin McDonagh, begins previews on Friday , opens July 27, and runs through Aug. 20 at A Contemporary Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle. $10-42. 206-292-7676.

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Three years ago, a handsome, cocksure playwright in his 20s named Martin McDonagh emerged from South London obscurity to take the world stage by storm.

Several of McDonagh's ferociously comic and unsettling plays, set in rural West Ireland where his family's roots are embedded in the rocky soil, won ecstatic reviews and top literary prizes on both sides of the Atlantic.

Suddenly this Anglo-Irish high-school dropout, the son of a construction worker and a housekeeper, was being hailed as the next John M. Synge, Sean O'Casey and Samuel Beckett.

But in the flurry of excitement over the London and Broadway productions of McDonagh's "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" and "The Cripple of Inishmaan," all was not smooth sailing.

There was a drunken dust-up with actor Sean Connery at an awards ceremony. And some cranky critical backlash. And a few damning interviews - in which a callow McDonagh seemed to be trashing live theater and lusting for success as a movie auteur.

Not surprisingly, McDonagh chose to "opt out" of the limelight for a while. Now, at age 30, he's quietly edging back into it.

This month, the dramatist ventures to Seattle to attend A Contemporary Theatre's American premiere of his audacious black comedy, "A Skull in Connemara."

To hear McDonagh tell it, in a rare phone interview from his London home, he accepted ACT's invite because "my brother John won a couple of plane tickets in a raffle, we were going to San Francisco anyway, and it sounded great to pop up to Seattle. I've always wanted to go to Seattle. There's that whole Nirvana thing."

But don't let the amiably acerbic manner fool you. McDonagh may swear that "even if I write two or three dozen good plays, I don't think I'll be happy unless I make one good movie." And he may truly be more enamored with the films of Quentin Tarantino and songs of Kurt Cobain than anything going on in live theater.

But get him talking, and he'll admit that playwrights Synge and Harold Pinter are big influences. He'll also express gratitude for his success, and reflect thoughtfully on his own works, which artfully juxtapose classic Irish themes with an ironic postmodern sensibility.

"My plays come pretty much just from the inside of my head," explains McDonagh. "I'm not trying to capture anything specific about the Ireland I know. Basically, it's all just storytelling, influenced by trips I've taken and characters I've met."

"A Skull in Connemara" is set in beauteous Connemara, in County Galway. It's a sylvan area McDonagh has visited for years.

But the word-landscapes McDonagh paints of that area, in a trilogy of plays that also includes "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" and "The Lonesome West," are not nostalgic or picturesque.

McDonagh's imagined Connemara is a rough-hewn terrain of twisted relationships, curdled superstitions, seething violence and American pop-cultural encroachments. And he evokes it in quirky suspense tales dotted with touches of "Shakespeare and soap opera, Grand Guignol and the Bible, melodrama and the Brothers Grimm," according to critic Finan O'Toole.

"A Skull in Connemara," says McDonagh, "was the first play I wrote in the Leenane trilogy, but just an early version of it. The first two scenes have stayed intact, but I went back later to change the course of the story because originally, it didn't really go anywhere interesting."

Where it goes now is down into the murk of a crowded Irish cemetery, where two laborers, Mick (played at ACT by noted screen actor Kevin Tighe) and Mairtin (Andrew McGinn) are assigned to dig up graves and make room for bodies of the more recently deceased.

The skull in question is that of Mick's wife, who perished in a car crash years earlier and is now being exhumed. Was her death accidental? Or is Mick, who copped a drunken-driving plea in the matter, guilty of something worse - as a snoopy neighbor (Zouanne LeRoy) and a bumbling detective (Christopher Evan Welch) suspect?

"Beauty Queen of Leenane" has been translated into 30 languages, and widely staged since its smash 1996 debut. ("I've seen it in Iceland, and the sex-comedy version in Rio," cracks McDonagh.) But "Skull" has had few airings.

It premiered in 1997 in Galway, at the hands of McDonagh's frequent director Garry Hynes, then traveled to London's Royal Court Theatre, where one critic called it "hilarious and stomach-turning."

McDonagh says he's curious to see how it goes over in Seattle, and thinks it hasn't had wider distribution yet because "it's a looser, crazier play in a lot of ways than `Beauty Queen.' "

It is also very graphic, even ghoulish in its attitude toward the remains of the dead - and trenchant in its awareness of how the living suspect, resent and lean on one another.

"Even though it has very black humor, I think it's probably the least dark of the plays in the trilogy," claims McDonagh. "All the characters walk away in the end - or at least stagger away. And it's probably the most ambiguous. It leaves more to the audience's imagination to decide exactly what's happened."

By contrast, he reflects, the matricidal tale unspooled in "Beauty Queen of Leenane" (seen last year at Seattle Repertory Theatre) is "quite clearly defined, and there isn't much room for your participation or discussion. But I like both kinds of stories - the pristine ones, and the ones that let you form more of your own opinion."

A "graveyard discourse" is central to "Skull," which critic O'Toole describes as "somewhere between a cheap vampire movie and the fourth act of `Hamlet.' "

Muses McDonagh, "I kind of like graveyards, I've always felt sort of peaceful in them. I guess I was inspired by this graveyard in Ireland near where my mom and dad used to live. The ground really is so rocky that they dig up people to make more room."

ACT artistic director Gordon Edelstein, who is staging the play's American premiere, says he doesn't expect the gruesome bits will gross viewers out.

"This script is deeply funny and brilliantly crafted," he suggests, "and much more like Pinter and Beckett than other McDonagh works. The title actually is taken from a line in Beckett.

"Yes, it's grisly and macabre, but also absolutely hilarious - an absurd, macabre farce. And it's also wonderfully theatrical, and mythic in a way that's hard to pin down."

And what about the hostilities, treachery and violence that erupt throughout the trilogy?

"I think manipulation and double-crossing are basic tenets of storytelling," McDonagh responds. "But in all the murkiness and the ugliness and the horror there are still tiny kernels of heart and light that come through.

"In `Beauty Queen,' it's not too many. But in `Skull,' there's a lot of warmth between the characters despite everything. Finding that kernel of goodness in what's very black is much more interesting to me than glossing things over."

Though he's laid low in London and New York recently, McDonagh has lots of projects in the hopper.

He's working on several plays, some set outside of Ireland. One takes place in "a nameless totalitarian state, another is about petty gangsters on Coney Island - a film noir-ish thing."

McDonagh also is angling for a first production of "The Lieutenant of Inishmore" - part of his "Cripple of Inishmaan" trilogy.

"It's very kind of dark and dangerous, and nobody's touching it."

And, yes, he's also writing a screenplay - "very, very slowly. I'm just writing it for me. I want to keep it to myself and maybe direct it one day. I've had some offers to make my plays into films, but I'm not interested. I don't think plays work well as movies."

As for his bad-boy behavior at the crest of the "Beauty Queen of Leenane" hoopla, McDonagh shrugs it off as youthful bravado.

"I was playing a game, being very loud and obnoxious in order to sell the play in New York, really," he confides. "But it turned out the play touched people in some core way, and just sold itself."

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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