A proper, if not spirited, production of 'Playboy'

September 18, 1990|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Staff Correspondent

Washington "The Playboy of the Western World" -- John Millington Synge's 1907 drama about a young man who unexpectedly finds himself treated as a hero after he reveals he has murdered his father -- might seem a quaint and foolish fable nowadays. But consider the celebrity status often awarded to criminals by our supposedly sophisticated, upstanding society.

A fascination with the doers of bloody deeds appears to span cultures, times and better judgment. (If you doubt it, take a look at the article in the current Vanity Fair on the two Menendez brothers, accused of killing their parents in Beverly Hills.)

So there is -- or can be -- a creepy resonance to Synge's modern classic. But the production by the Abbey Theatre of Ireland, currently launching a national tour at the Kennedy Center, exudes more reverence than resonance.

Granted, national institutions tend to focus on protecting national treasures, and there is no doubt that "The Playboy of the Western World" has earned that distinction. But this is a play that provoked riots when it was first produced. Under Vincent Dowling's direction, it isn't incendiary, it's Masterpiece Theatre.

In other words, it's solid and loyal, and fortunately, American ears will find it intelligible; every note is sounded in Synge's musical language. In 1981 when the Abbey brought O'Casey's "The Shadow of a Gunman" to Baltimore's International Theater Festival, the brogue was frequently impenetrable. However, Mr. Dowling has spent more than a decade working in this country, and he has wisely hired a number of Irish actors with experience on American and British stages.

Local audiences will recognize Roma Downey, who plays the female lead, Pegeen Mike, and appeared at the Mechanic Theatre last season as the ingenue opposite Rex Harrison in "The Circle." Though Synge included a chorus of silly, giggling young women in "Playboy," in the end Pegeen Mike proves the silliest and saddest of all.

Engaged to timid Shawn Keogh -- played as a hopeless nebbish by Macdara O Fatharta -- Pegeen falls recklessly in love with the man she perceives to be his polar opposite -- the self-confessed murderer, Christy Mahon. Except for her final scene, which is lit and directed with excessive melodrama, Ms. Downey's performance comes closest to sparking fire.

Unfortunately, Frank McCusker's Christy is one of the few cast members whose delivery may be too dense for American audiences, a problem which may clear up during the tour. More troubling is the fact that until his very last lines, he's the same simpleton he was when he stumbled into the tavern run by Pegeen and her father. "Playboy" is supposed to be a coming-of-age tale, but Mr. McCusker doesn't let us see Christy grow up.

With the exception of the giggling girls, who are a bit over-age, the rest of the cast is fitting and proper. In fact, just about everything about this production is proper. It honors Synge's memory, but it doesn't quite bring his spirit back to life.

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