Thursday, November 16, 2006

Review of Irish Repertory Theatre's "The Playboy of the Western World"

I’m going to go out on a very short limb and argue that if Melissa Lynch gives one more performance this season equal to her Pegeen Mike in J.M. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World (or her Agnes from six months ago), that she is the most promising young actress in Philadelphia today. Synge’s dark comedy, about a stranger who captures the attention of a rural Irish town, is currently playing at Plays and Players, in co-production with the Irish Repertory Theatre.

Much of the plot in Playboy is driven by disparities: between stories and truth, bravado and cowardice, admiration and eventual disdain. These evince themselves in the very language spoken—Christy Mahon, roundly admired for “destroying his dad” by a town that believes that “a daring fellow is the jewel of the world,” is eventually castigated by them for his duplicity when told “there’s a great gap between a gallant story and a dirty deed.”

Unfortunately, great gaps plague this production as well. The directing sounds its fault line between a roaringly funny act one and two and the completely mismanaged third that follows; the acting places an even ensemble and two amazing female performances against their relatively weak male counterparts; and the sets and costumes showcase a careful attention that find no balance in the underused lighting and sound design.

Director John Gallagher manufactures most of these imbalances. Each of the first two acts he crafts skillfully with their own color and tone, while still uniting them flawlessly. The first is a dark night tinged with fire and mystery, the second, a revealing ray of morning, illuminating some secrets, while concealing others in further intrigue. These both possess great humor and depth, as Gallagher seems capable of staging anything but tension and violent physical action, both of which the third act requires in equal measure. Because of this, in act three, the humor remains, but the precipice of action that should have captivated instead falls flat, and renders the play’s finale into an end both false and completely unsatisfying.

The only even and coherent element of Gallagher’s staging lies in the liveliness of the ensemble. Act three apart, he arranges them to effects both spirited—in the gaggle of women that flock about Christy—to poignant, in the two barflies placed leisurely off to the side, treating all the drama with hilarious commentary (and that well-wrought by McKeever and Scott Robertson).

Against this solid body, the imbalance between the two women in Lynch’s Pegeen and Kate Danaher’s completely safe yet faultless performance as the Widow Quinn, stand Matt Taylor’s uneven Christy and Doug Greene’s neurotically timid Shawn Keogh. Taylor plays the playboy of the title, but lacks charm, with no smoothness to his character, and no alluring rough edges either. By a strange contrast, he’s the only one (save Lynch) that manages to stoke the fires of tension and anger in act three, where he finally hits the right notes; but by this point the change is too unbelievable, as he never gave us enough early glimpses to justify his eventual rage.

Then there is Lynch, who “possessing the devil’s own temper,” nearly redeems all these defects in full. Her performance is full of fire and passion, and infused with true verve stands as the only reliable constant in this play. One moment a viper, the next the tenderest of souls, she effects all her transitions seamlessly, with no overplay, giving a completely natural performance, effected beautifully. Her eventual moment of anguish is both dark and shameful, and yet tenderly comic in its remorse.

Despite any imbalances, Synge’s play stands as the supreme reason to see this production. Full of rich humor and beautiful imagery, the sheer poetry of the language Playboy offers is nothing short of Shakespeare. From the humble first moments of a mysterious stranger on a wind-blown night to the devastating reversal of his fortunes, this play will always succeed in producing anguish and laughter touched with sympathy and regret. Highly recommended.

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