By Greggory Moore, Curtain Call Columnist
Until recent years, few who don’t proudly wear the label “theatre nerd” knew the name “Martin McDonagh.” But since the critical and commercial success of 2017’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, McDonagh has become perhaps the second-most known (after Quentin Tarantino) exemplar of how vulgar witticism and a violence-as-comedy ethos can make for great art.
Such popularity cuts both ways if you mount a McDonagh play these days. Although you’ll sell tix to fans (whether new or nerds from way back), they may come with Three Billboards ― including its seven Oscar nominations and wins for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor ― on their mind.
With an outstanding acting quartet and a director who knows how to use them, Little Fish Theatre deftly handles that double-edged sword, slicing open The Lonesome West to reveal the beating heart of McDonagh’s wicked humor.
Battling brothers Coleman (Cylan Brown) and Valene Connor (Bill Wolski) are just back from the cemetery, having laid their father to rest. Accompanying them is Father Welsh (Brendan Kane), a young priest who has turned to drink over the lawlessness in his small parish, including two murders during the last year ― not counting Valene’s dog, which bled to death after his ears were hacked off. And now this accidental killing of Connor père by Coleman. Except it wasn’t an accident. And the body count is about to rise.
Despite ever-present menace and bursts of bloodshed, McDonagh’s plays are mostly talk. That goes double for The Lonesome West. With relatively little onstage violence, the dialog does all the heavy lifting, dialog so soaked in brogue and idiom that you expect to find a dialect coach listed among the crew. Little Fish may be too little for such a luxury, but you’d never know it from this show, because Brown, Wolski, Kane, and Eliza Faloona (as alcohol-peddling schoolgirl Girleen) completely own every word. Each role runs the gamut ― pensive monolog, frenetic interaction, laughter and pain ― and there isn’t a single moment not perfectly translated from page to stage.
A huge share of the credit goes to director Stephanie Coltrin. So often I find seemingly capable casts cut off from reaching their full potential due to directors permitting them to make it all the way through the rehearsal process without living their lines, resulting in a play that is basically just serial recitation (actors simply waiting for each other to finish so they can immediately say their lines), with no sign of the characters actually listening and formulating responses the way people do in real life. Little Fish’s The Lonesome West is the exact opposite, with perfect pacing and plenty of room to breathe. This cast is more than merely capable, and Coltrin has helped them fully realize their talent.
This includes generally great blocking. With one notable exception, all of the action takes place in the front room of the Connor home (neatly constructed with some surprising bells and whistles by Matt White), which runs nearly the entire breadth of Little Fish’s lengthy space. Coltrin uses all of it, letting the characters move through the room realistically rather than reminding us that these are actors hitting their marks and always keeping us interested visually.
The sole failure on this score is fight choreography. I’m sure somewhere people are doing believable fight scenes onstage, but I never can find such places. In a play where everything else is dead on, Brown and Wolski’s two bouts of hand-to-hand combat stand out in all the wrong ways. A few blows land believably enough, but mostly it’s slow and stilted, asking for too much suspension of disbelief.
Coltrin is also guilty of a more venial but equally common sin: showing us something that clearly contradicts the dialog. The worst of two such errors is when Valene discovers a pot in which his figurines have been melted down. “It’s just the fucking heads bobbing around,” he laments, then scoops up a fully unscathed figurine for all to see. This kind of easily avoidable shit makes me crazy. No-one thought to snip the head off one and use it here?
These peccadillos, though, are not what you’ll take away from this show You’ll remember the savagely funny dialog, funny to start and funnier as it progresses (including history’s drollest use of the short-lived ’70s TV series Alias Smith and Jones). You’ll be touched by Girleen and Father Welsh at the lakeside by night, contemplative and funny and sad. You’ll be struck by the fluidity of Brown and Wolski’s transition from mutual antagonism to fraternity, by Kane’s disembodied delivery of a letter to the brothers, by Faloona’s minutely trembling hands as she holds a necklace that will never get where it’s meant to go.
And you’ll be surprised at how such an absurdly humorous play leaves you reflecting on forgiveness and the chance we have to strengthen our bonds with each other, so long as we’re willing to persevere in a world that so often feels lonely and pointless and cruel. It’s the kind of thing that happens when great writing, acting, and directing come together.
The Lonesome West at Little Fish Theatre
Times: Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m. + Sun. 2 p.m. (no show Sept. 8)
The show runs through September 15
Details: (310) 512-6030, littlefishtheatre.org
Venue: 777 Centre St., San Pedro