BWW Reviews: Artists Rep Strikes a Blow with THE PLAYBOY OF THE WESTERN WORLD
You no doubt have plays or films or television shows that don't make sense to you. Everyone else seems to adore them, but you don't quite understand the fuss. People call me a curmudgeon because I don't respond to E.T. (I think it's John Williams's music that puts me off), I can't bear the songs of Andrew Lloyd Webber, I couldn't sit through any episode of The Sopranos, and I find Adele whiny. And I have never ever been able to understand the charms of The Playboy of the Western World.
Perhaps I shouldn't even be writing this review, but I'll take a whack at it. (Pun intended. Forgive me.) John Millington Synge's 1907 play is about Christy, a young man who shows up in an Irish village and announces that he has killed his father with a blow to the head. For some reason, the men of the town are impressed by this feat and immediately claim friendship with the boy, while all the women in the town eye him as potential husband material, particularly the young barmaid Pegeen Mike. Complications ensue, and there is much drunken speechmaking along with a number of farcical actions,
The tone is tricky. Do we empathize with this patricidal character? Do we laugh at the townspeople who are impressed or charmed by his act? Do we want him to get away with his crime (certainly no one in the town suggests turning him in to the police) and pair off with Pegeen Mike? How much disbelief are we supposed to suspend? And then, as events in the play turn in different directions, are we supposed to follow along? Are we meant to laugh, or to be angry, or to just sit back and be confused? The play's original 1907 premiere caused riots, and I can certainly understand why.
But that's criticism of a playwright who died in 1908. What's at hand is Artists Rep's take on the play, and director Damaso Rodriguez has chosen to keep the play going at a frantic pace, with very little time to breathe, and that's as good a choice as any. (If I hadn't seen the play before, I likely wouldn't have had time to stop and reflect on the moral issues it brings up.) The fast pace, combined with thick Irish accents, may leave a few speeches incomprehensible, but it makes for lots of laughter and a blissful ignorance of the play's darker side.
The cast is impeccable, and all of them seem to have mastered the Irish sound; assistant director Mary McDonald-Lewis seems to have been in charge of the accents and did a fine job teaching the cast. Amy Newman was the standout as Pegeen Mike, handling her character's transitions in and out of every possible mood with aplomb and believability. Allen Nause as her father and Michael Mendelson and Jeb Berrier as his drinking buddies were a hilariously soused team, and Jill Van Vetzer was all business as the Widow Quin, who gets dragged into the farcical side of the story against her will. Isaac Lamb added some fine comic moments as Pegeen's milquetoast fiance. Chris Murray, in the title role, was all youthful exuberance, though he seemed a bit confused by the character's transitions and seemed to approach every moment with the same cocky grin, though he found great rapport with Bill Geisslinger as - well, I don't think I'm supposed to describe his character.
I have to single out scenic designer Jack O'Brien for outstanding work here. Pegeen Mike's pub and living quarters were outstandingly drawn, the very picture of a small Irish cottage from a hundred years ago, with a lovely attention to detail. O'Brien managed to create a hill off to the side that the characters could climb, a great choice that added to the beauty of the set. Costume designer Nancy Hills came up with a variety of period costumes that suited the characters well.
So all in all a fine production of a problematic play. Artists Rep has a knack for picking difficult scripts, but they also have the talent to make most of them work. I can't say I fell in love with this Playboy, but I didn't mind spending a couple of hours with it today.