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A CurtainUp Review
The Playboy of the Western World

There's great temptation in a man that's slayed his Dad.—Widow Quin
The Playboy of the Western World
Lee Stark and Sean McNall in The Playboy of the Western World
(Photo: Gregory Costanzo)
The Playboy of the Western World. The comedy, which is now considered part of the cannon of Irish drama, was greeted with boos and hisses when it premiered at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin on January 26, 1907. Synge wrote the play as both a tribute to the courage and poetic sensibility of the Irish and a satire on the foibles of the Irish peasantry. Unfortunately, the audience only saw the latter.

The Pearl's revival, directed by its new artistic director, J.R. Sullivan, features Sean McNall as Christopher Mahon, the attractive lad who stumbles into a Flaherty's Tavern on the west coast of County Mayo. At first, he seems like any other weary vagabond, but when he announces that he has just murdered his father, he becomes a hero and a celebrity. Flaherty's bored and frustrated daughter, Pegeen, who is barmaid at the tavern, takes an immediate fancy to the newcomer.

For Pegeen, Christy, as he is called, is rendered even more desirable when compared with Shawn Keough (Ryan G. Metzger), the oafish young man her father wants her to marry. But before Pegeen can capture Christy's heart, she has to fight off the other maidens and the particularly insistent Widow Quin (Rachel Botchan), who knows how to combine practicality with romance.

Christy falls naturally into the role of a romantic hero. He speaks with the poetry for which the Irish are justifiably famous. He wins the races and takes all the prizes. He is faithful to the woman he loves. All but the jealous farmers seem unaware that killing one's father is not exactly commendable behavior.

Eventually, however, Christy gets his comeuppance. Is he is caught by the police? No. Is he run out of town by the just anger of the townspeople? No. Is he denounced by the Pegeen's father, who does not want a murderer in his family? No. Christy's wounded father comes to the town searching for his errant son, and the town learns that Christy has not killed the old squater after all. Of all the townspeople none is angrier or more disappointed than Pegeen.

If this is comedy, it is all at the expense of the foolish townsfolk who (like many today) are eager to make a hero out of the undeserving, even the vile. Synge's comedy may seem to make light of the foolish Irish peasants, but underneath there is sharp criticism that is meant to shed light and wound.

The Pearl's presentation, by contrast is quite tame. Except the excellent Botchan, the peasants seem too jolly and innocent, at least until the very end when their viciousness is unexpected and jolting. This revival does have many fine moments and NcNall is appropriately charming, and even his most extravagant lines are utterly believable. However, much of the play fails to elicit a response from the audience (at least at the performance I attended). This may be because the Pearl, like too many theaters today, has chosen authenticity over clarity so that often the actors speak with such a thick brogue that many in the audience just cannot understand what they are saying. Fortunately the two intermissions allow for a quick exchange of explanations while audience members wait on line to use the restrooms.

The above aside, it may also be the quietness of this production that inhibits it. How much funnier and more serious would this Playboy of the Western World have been if the actors were more ridiculous and more extravagant. Metzger comes closest to being a clown, but even he is far too restrained. And Stark makes Pegeen so likable, it's hard to see why she doesn't just forgive Christy his failure to have killed his father and take him on his obvious merits as a lover and athlete.

Those first Dublin audiences knew exactly what they were doing when they worked themselves into a frenzy over The Playboy of the Western World. It's a subversive comedy of the highest order. In fact, it's not hard to see examples of misplaced hero worship today in the public's response to people like Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan or Chris Brown.

Links to other productions of this play reviewed at Curtainup:
Playboy Of the Western World at the Irish Rep
The Playboy of the Western World in London

The Playboy of the Western World
By J.M. Synge
Directed by J.R. Sullivan
Cast: Sean McNall (Christopher Mahon), Bradford Cover (Michael James Flaherty), Lee Stark (Pegeen Flaherty), Ryan G. Metzger (Shawn Keough), Michael Brusasco (Philly Cullen), Dominic Cuskern (Jimmy Farrell), Rachel Botchan (Widow Quin), Ellen Adair (Sara Tansey), Stephanie Bratnick (Susan Brady), Julie Ferrell (Honor Blake), Joe Kady Old Mahon)
Scenic Design: Harry Feiner
Costume Design: Rachel Laritz
Lighting Design: Stephen Petrilli Sound Design: M.L. Dogg
Fight Director: Rod Kinter
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes with two intermissions
Pearl Theater at New York City Center's Stage II, West 55th Street between 6th and 7th avenues, (212) 581-1212
From 10/2/09; opening 10/11/09; closes11/22/09
Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30pm, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2:30pm
Tickets: $30 for all preview performances, $40 for performances on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, $50 for performances on Friday, Saturday and Sunday
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons October 11, 2009
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