New World Repertory Company

When John Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World opened at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 1907 the audience rioted, angered by its obscene and blasphemous language and its unflattering portrait of the Irish. For the first week of the play’s run people tried to disrupt the performance, heckling the actors and scuffling outside the theater.

Four years later, when Lady Gregory took the production on a tour of the United States, the play encountered similar disruptions. Lady Gregory even received a death threat in Chicago, though she refused to take the letter seriously because she believed its crude sketch of a gun proved the sender was ignorant about firearms.

New World Repertory Company’s good-natured but wildly uneven production of Synge’s play makes it hard to see what the fuss was about. Of course it’s true that though the story is a little odd–a stranger comes to town claiming to have killed his father and wins the affection of not one but two local women, a young widow and a lonely saloon keeper’s daughter–it’s no odder than dozens of other 20th-century plays. In fact, once you accept Synge’s premise that the villagers aren’t scared to death of this confessed murderer, the rest of the story seems much more conventional.

It’s also true that standards for obscenity have changed considerably since 1907. The word that set off Synge’s original audience–“shift,” a woman’s undergarment–wouldn’t shock my devout Irish-Catholic grandmother.

But what politically correct, early-20th-century Irish audiences found most objectionable about Synge’s play was his portrayal of the much-romanticized, noble Irish peasantry as violent and overly emotional. Unhappily, Richard Kirk’s production almost entirely lacks the wild irrationality that made Synge’s play so loathed–and so powerful. Instead, the company serves up a nice, competent, somewhat likable play about a handful of Irish people with cute, for the most part believable Irish accents who don’t always seem to know what they’re saying when they speak Synge’s word-drunk prose.

Of course it can’t be easy for contemporary American actors used to bite-size movie dialogue to convincingly deliver such baroque lines as “She wouldn’t suit you, and she with the divil’s own temper the way you’d be strangling one another in a score of days.” Then again, no one does Synge because he’s easy. It’s unforgivable that so many of the actors in this show plow their way through the dialogue, getting the lilt and melody just right but failing entirely to convey the passion behind the lines. Especially Paul Goebel, whose portrayal of the saloon keeper’s daughter’s cowardly but jealous fiance is too cool and emotionally uninvolved to be convincing. Even at the end of the third act, when his character is in real danger of losing his betrothed to the charming stranger, Goebel delivers his lines with the same singsong tone he’s used throughout the play.

Lisa Hodsoll’s take on the Widow Quinn is somewhat more successful, though when her character lapses into self-pity, talking about how she “buried her children and destroyed her man,” none of her loneliness comes through.

In fact, this production would barely pass for community theater without James E. Fitzgerald and Maria Muller, who, as the lovers at the story’s center, throw themselves heart and soul into their performances. When they’re together the production crackles with energy. Every line they deliver speaks volumes about their characters. When he tells her “I was born lonesome,” he conveys the depth of his loneliness. Likewise when she tells him, “I’m thinking you’re an odd man, Christy Mahon. The oddest fellow I ever set my eyes on this hour to-day,” you can tell just by her tone of voice that she’s opened her heart to him. And when she delivers the last sorrowful line of the play–“I’ve lost him surely. I’ve lost the only playboy of the Western world”–you feel her grief, even before you understand the full ramifications of the play’s ending.

Every time these two appear together we catch a glimpse of the true power of Synge’s play. The rest of the time New World’s Playboy hardly seems worth parallel parking for, much less starting a riot over.