… not all ‘classics’ are classic …

J. M. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World is an overrated classic. It’s a well constructed play hinging on a preposterous idea: that an entire isolated Irish village, particularly the women, would become totally infatuated with a young man who appears suddenly among them because, according to him, he killed his father in an act of rage. It doesn’t hold water.

No wonder the Irish were enraged when it first played at the Abbey Theatre in 1907: this characterization of the Irish villagers, by the well born and highly educated Irish playwright, is early modern primitivizing — Gauguin in the South Seas — with the remote villagers the “natives,” whom Synge depicts as gullible and violent as if that adds up to some kind of naive purity. It was the literary avant garde, not the Irish populace whose spirit Synge claimed to celebrate, that nudged Playboy into the modern canon. No wonder it doesn’t hold up well today, even when given an earnest and competent production by Pearl Theatre.

The down and out young man who arrives in town, Christy Mahon, embellishes his tale of patricide as he sees the enchantment it casts on his listeners, particularly Pegeen Mike, the pub owner’s daughter whom he plans to marry, with all the promise of security and prosperity that good match holds for him. Things fall into place so well for him that Christy only wishes he’d “killed his father sooner.” Augmenting his larger-than-life image in the village, he also begins to win horse races, though these take place off-stage and are puzzling rather than convincing for the audience. But the villagers go gaga.

Ultimately Christy has his great comedown. It turns out he’s no dashing superman but a wimp, dominated by a very large and brutal father who appears in town quite alive, much to everyone’s amazement, with only a bloody head wound from Christy’s blow. To salvage his reputation Christy tries to kill him a few more times but the father just won’t go down, heightening Christy’s humiliation. Unable to kill him, Christy finally leaves town with him, having reached a degree of father-son understanding. Since this is a “well made play,” Pegeen Mike changes, too: after having turned on him in a particularly horrible way, she loses him totally, emerging with a deeper though now hopeless love.

Sean McNall as Christy, who recently gave a memorable performance as the sensitive, indecisive narrator in Tennessee William’s Vieux Carre, isn’t convincing as Playboy’s swashbuckling liar. Lee Stark is the charming and feisty pub owner’s daughter who falls in love with Christy; and the open flirtatiousness of all the girls is an interesting counterpoint to the mature sexuality of Widow Quin, played by Rachel Botcham. All the actors do a good job of capturing Synge’s Irish language but in the rough and tumble of the play, a lot of words are missed. In general, the play is at its best when the ordinary moments of living are taking place, not in the moments of excess.

The Pearl Theatre has just moved from a proscenium theater to this one with seats on three sides but Playboy was staged to the center as if still in the old theater. I imagine as they warm up to it they’ll do more with the exciting possibilities of the audience surrounding the playing area.

The Playboy of the Western World plays at New York City Center, Theater II, through November 22.

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