"It seems God has no jurisdiction in this town," complains Father Welsh, the priest in Martin McDonagh's black comedy "The Lonesome West," now playing at Columbia's Rep Stage.
Even though that's a whopping understatement, there are hints of God in Leenane, the rural Irish town where the young McDonagh has set three of his plays. Lou Stancari's grubby, one-room set features a small crucifix in a pool of light on the wall, and Valene Connor, one of the two bickering brothers at the center of "The Lonesome West," collects religious figurines.
Not that Valene qualifies as a devout Catholic. Valene drinks and curses and bullies his brother, Coleman. Coleman also drinks and curses and bullies - and just blew off their father's head with a gun at close range.
Violence and stupidity have been a staple of Irish drama going back to John Millington Synge's "The Playboy of the Western World," and McDonagh - a London lad with Irish relatives - has become lavishly awarded and internationally famous for writing plays that exploit the lingering image of Ireland as a backward land.
You can argue, of course, that any country that habitually kills its own in a never-ending religious struggle deserves parody. And there is plenty of dead-on satire in the fact that Valene and Coleman have their harshest fights over potato chips and religious figurines.
McDonagh invites the audience to laugh at his mean and dirty characters, but if you've seen McDonagh's rude "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" (or Quentin Tarantino movies), the joke is likely to be stale.
The brothers are literally at each other's throats before the play is 15 minutes old, and, like a Warner Brothers cartoon, McDonagh looks for more inventive ways for the antagonists to damage each other. Valene coldly blackmails Coleman and denies his brother food and drink; Coleman bakes Valene's figurines and blasts holes in his brother's precious stove. You get the feeling that if McDonagh could detonate a little TNT on the stage, he would.
So it's certainly not a dull play, and director Kasi Campbell's nimble production makes the show's two hours fly by. Bruce Nelson (as Coleman) and Christopher C. Walker (as Valene) ably create a relationship defined by intense pettiness, but a chemical ingredient is missing: Though the brothers have hot tempers, their antics come across as mere tantrums, not as deep viciousness.
There is no element of danger in the performance, even though Coleman and Valene can hardly speak to each other without making threats or brandishing weapons.
So what's at stake? It falls to Steven Carpenter's sad-eyed Father Welsh and Susan Lynskey's foul-mouthed but decent Girleen to try to bring a little moral gravity. Welsh and Girleen have a lovely waterside scene together (beautifully lighted by Marianne Meadows), a scene that Carpenter and Lynskey gently play with ebbing and flowing hope and despair.
Forgiveness and tolerance: That's what Father Welsh wants the Connor boys to learn. Naturally, McDonagh makes a mockery of that wish in what is easily the play's most savage and funniest battle (Nelson's Coleman leaps into this new twisted moral zone with particular zeal).
It's a terrific comic scene, but ultimately the laughter is brittle. McDonagh clearly wants to create something with a certain richness, yet the pile of wreckage at the end of the play doesn't shape up as meaningful ruins. It's just a grotesque mess.
Rep Stage presents "The Lonesome West" by Martin McDonagh at Howard Community College's Theatre Outback at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 15. Tickets are $18 Fridays, $20 Saturdays, $16 Sunday matinees and $14 Sunday evenings, with $2 discounts for senior citizens and $3 discounts for groups of six or more. Students tickets are $10 all shows with valid identification. Information: 410-772-4900.