There’s a lot to love about The Playboy of the Western World.
Well, not the actual playboy. There’s not really all that much to love about him. That’s kind of the point of the play. But there is much to love about City Lit’s production of The Playboy of the Western World.
First, the history…
Take a moment to reflect on this.
When John Millington Synge’s 1907 controversial masterpiece opened at the Abbey theater in Dublin, theatergoers had, well, strong feelings. In fact, they were so offended by what they believed to be Synge’s vulgar portrayal of the Irish people as ignorant, drunken, and violent… they rioted. Bet that showed him.
But this was Ireland, and Synge was an Irish playwright, so the play hit a little close to home. When the play opened in New York in 1911, you might expect the audience reaction was a bit more subdued and sophisticated. Perhaps some were a bit miffed about the depiction of their Irish brothers and sisters, but this was the theater capital of the world, and… nope, they rioted too.
In 2022, we did not riot in the City Lit Theater. After the play, I went for tacos across the street and thought about how unlikely it would be today for a riot to break out while watching a play in which a harp provides musical accompaniment.
But still, more than a century later, the Playboy holds a mirror up to our faces and shows us a side of ourselves we might not always like.
Second, the story still works…
On one level, The Playboy of the Western World tells the story of the bored, lonely, parochial townsfolk in a little pub in County Mayo who inexplicably fall head over heels for an odd little stranger who wanders into the pub claiming to have murdered his father. This portrait is not flattering.
But on another level, the play tells a story of human frailty and the ways people find love, joy, and hope in the places they can. This picture looks a little better.
As with any great story, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
One day, Christy Mahon, the playboy of the title, finds his way into a pub in County Mayo on the Northwest coast of Ireland. Christy is weary and terrified, but he has the gift of gab and no shortage of blarney. A talented though frantic storyteller, he claims to have killed his father, an overbearing autocrat of a dad, with a shovel and then ran away. He has been walking for days, and now he just wants to rest, work in the pub, and tell his story a little bigger and bolder every time he’s asked.
This unlikely tale from an unlikely hero wins him the heart of Pegeen Flaherty, not to mention the other townswomen, young and old, who find their way into the pub. Though Christy is starved for attention and will take it wherever he can find it, he settles in with the idea that he and Pegeen were made for each other.
And life is looking good for Christy–he’s even able to build on his legend when he wins a donkey race on the beach–but things take a turn when his thoroughly cracked father shows up, bloody skull and all, very angry and definitely not dead.
Third, the acting and direction are killer…
Director Brian Pastor’s talented cast and crew breathe life and energy into the distinctly Irish classic. Joshua Servantez is perfectly lovable, and at the same time not, as Christy. Servantez gets the blarney just right, but he also adds depth to the complicated character with a performance that shows us a young man who is, at once, thrilled to finally get attention, excited to be out in the world, and frightened that he has killed his father and will soon be caught.
Michaela Voit is both outstanding and convincing as Pegeen. Voit’s Pegeen is believable, which is an essential ingredient for Christy’s otherwise nonsensical allure. She loves him… she thinks. So we are ok with him, too… kinda, though not really. Which, of course, is the point.
Adam Bitterman is fantastic and hilarious as Christy’s bludgeoned father. He is every bit as funny and filled with outrageous blarney as Brenda Wlazlo is touching and lovely in her role as the Widow Quin. In her gorgeous performance as Pegeen’s rival, Wlazlo gets the Widow’s self-awareness just right. While Pegeen wanders unconsciously through the best sort of youthful, lovestruck fog, Wlazlo’s Widow Quin knows the exact depth of her loneliness and desperation, and still she pursues the silly playboy with an equal, though different, type of zeal.
The rest of the ensemble is wonderful. Each cast member brings humanity to the characters in the little pub, complete with hopes, dreams, and foibles. Carried along by musician Richard Menge’s lovely harp accompaniment, they collectively capture the joy and anger of the townsfolk turned mob.
Finally, the language is gorgeous…
The dialogue alone is worth the price of the ticket and with a little help from dialect coach Carrie Hardin the cast’s delivery is perfect.
For the first ten minutes, I wondered if Google Translate had an Irish English option, but my utter confusion didn’t last long, and I soon found myself closing my eyes to enjoy the sheer musicality and lyrical beauty of the language of the people of County Mayo.
They might not have always thought Synge made them look good, but he made them sound amazing.
The Playboy of the Western World by John Milton Synge is playing through August 14 at City Lit Theater.