Court Theatre

Mustapha Matura’s Playboy of the West Indies, based on J. M. Synge’s Irish folk comedy The Playboy of the Western World, has a promising premise. There are notable resemblances between Synge’s rustic, turn-of-the-century Irish village and the rural Trinidad of the 1950s in which, Matura (himself a Trinidadian) has set his adaptation: both are isolated, impoverished but proud communities in which the lack of “civilizing” influences has allowed a distinctive local culture to flourish, complete with its own oral tradition.

Synge, helping to create a “Celtic renaissance” in the waning days of British imperial rule in Ireland, turned to such a tradition for its colorful characters, outlandish incident, and rough but extravagant poetic style. Playboy, his greatest play, is abundantly full of all three. Synge took what could be the stuff of ancient legend–a tall tale about a wandering hero who kills his “divil” of a father and tames the fairest but fieriest maiden in the village–and turned it into a profound, tragicomic study of human nature.

The “playboy” of Synge’s story is Christy Mahon, a handsome youth who staggers into a tiny, clannish community telling a tale of patricide: while they were digging potatoes, he crushed his abusive father’s head with a spade. This deed, rather than making Christy a pariah, turns him into a celebrity, feared and lionized for his bravery by the men and pursued by the women–most notably Pegeen Mike, the hot-tempered daughter of the local saloon keeper. Buoyed by all the attention, Christy–at home a shy, lazy, oversensitive lad, weak-willed and afraid of women and branded a fool by his bullish father–blossoms as a “playboy,” a star athlete and eloquent lover who can roughhouse, revel, and romance with the best of them. But his superstar image is shattered when his father–severely wounded but very much alive–comes after the lad. How Christy resolves his crisis–and at what loss of innocence–is the crux of the comedy.

In adapting Synge’s story from County Mayo to the Trinidadian town of Mayaro, Matura has found some clever equivalents for the Irish original. The characters are virtually the same: Christy is now Ken, Pegeen now Peggy; Shawn, Christy’s rival for Pegeen’s hand, is now Stanley, a timid slave to authority and the action’s main comic foil; and Widow Quin, the older woman who competes with Pegeen for Christy’s eye, has been transformed into Benin, a crafty, pipepuffing “obeah woman”–a backwoods witch. Pegeen’s saloon is now a rum bar; instead of spuds, it was sugar cane Ken was whacking at when he turned on his dad. Where Synge’s characters, especially the spineless Shawn, labor under the pervasive but distant authority of the Catholic Church in Rome, Matura’s Trinidadians are dominated by the civil service in London–a running political motif that is Matura’s most significant addition to the original. There are also several appropriate 50s references–to Hedy Lamarr, General Eisenhower, and King Farouk. By and large, however, Matura hews close to Synge’s script.

And therein ties the great trouble with this play. It’s an interesting experiment in cross-cultural transplantation, but it fails to come alive as theater: it has almost no spirit of its own. At its best when it is most original–particularly in the character of Mama Benin–Matura’s Playboy for the most part simply replicates its source in a different dialect, but with little of the fire or vitality that made Synge’s Playboy a classic in the first place. And–again, except in the case of Mama Benin–Matura’s dialogue doesn’t begin to match Synge’s for richness or potency. In place of the rolling cadences of Irish dialect, here there are stretches of crisp, occasionally witty but for the most part prosaic dialogue. In key moments, like the ending–when Synge’s unforgettable last line, “Oh, my grief, I’ve lost him surely. I’ve lost the only Playboy of the Western World,” is turned into the less alliterative, “I lose him, I lose the only Playboy of the West Indies” one wonders whether Matura wouldn’t have done better to drop the notion of adapting Synge’s masterpiece and simply write a new play altogether.

The script’s problems aren’t helped by the surprisingly weak direction by Nicolas Kent, who staged the play’s world premiere in London in 1984 and was invited to perform similar duties for the U.S. debut. Although Kent has shaped his ten-person cast into a fine ensemble, he falls short in the area of stage business: this Playboy lacks the broad, robust physical humor one associates with the original. Instead–appropriately, perhaps, to the setting’s semitropical climate, but nonetheless disappointingly–the production is permeated by a lethargic pace and a sogginess of spirit.

This is not to fault the cast, almost all of whom give full and witty performances. Pat Bowie is marvelous as Mama Benin, and Stefan Kalipha’s performance as skittish Stanley (a role he created in England) is a gem of comic physical detail. Ernest Perry Jr., Chuck Smith, and Ivory Ocean create memorable moments together as Peggy’s father and his rowdy buddies–a fine portrait of small men rubbing against the dinginess of their lives. Cherene Snow and Crystal Walker perk up the action considerably as a pair of flirtatious village girls. And John Cothran Jr. is a wall of power as Ken’s apparently unkillable father.

In the leads, Don Franklin and Celeste Williams make an attractive pair of lovers, and Franklin nicely captures Ken’s mixture of sensitivity and self-centeredness; unfortunately, he’s less at home with the thick West Indian accent than the rest of the cast, and his climactic surges of anger become hard to understand for anyone who doesn’t know the original. And Williams, though lovely and intelligent, lacks the fire of Peggy; she comes off as a bit of a drudge. We need to see the hugeness of the human spirit in her in order to appreciate the tragedy of her foolishness as she chases her lover away.

The evocative set–a ramshackle bar framed by palm trees and a shimmering blue sky–is by Adrianne Lobel, with warm lighting by Michael Rourke and colorful costumes by Jeff Bauer.