Family matters: Gretchen Hall, John Michalski and Christian Conn in Hangar Theatre’s The Playboy of the Western World.
Part folktale, part farce, part myth, Playboy
dances around many Big Themes: emergent masculinity, patriarchy,
organized religion, sexual yearning and the evanescent lure of
celebrity. The whole thing may or may not be a spoof of Oedipus Rex with overtones of Christian allegory. Still more widely read than performed, Playboy is
that rare example of a stage drama deemed a “classic” that’s also
rousing good entertainment, from the stalls to the groundlings.
Well-known as the play is, the legend
behind it bears some citation. John Millington Synge had been an
upper-class urban toff, failing to make a name for himself in Paris,
when he regrounded his bearings among the impoverished peasants in the
backwaters of western Ireland. They seemed to the playwright to be
closer both to death and to life than any urban sophisticates. A
generation away from the repressed Irish Gaelic language, they spoke in
lilting archaic speech that Synge found an antidote to the then-popular
heavy prose of Henrik Ibsen. The “Western World” of the title is a mock
inflated description of their own parochial world. And “playboy,” long
before Hugh Hefner expropriated it, meant fun-loving scamp.
Tart-tongued redhead Pegeen Mike
(Gretchen Hall) languishes in the country pub of her father, Michael
James Flaherty (Don Amendolia), dismayed at the prospect of marrying
her lily-livered cousin Shawn Keogh (Freddy Arsenault), who cringes in
fear at the pronouncements of the local parish priest (never seen). A
slovenly, barely clothed young man comes to the door, immediately
thought to be a Tinker, a member of the despised pariah class of
itinerants in rural Ireland. Instead, he is a young farm hand on the
run. With some prodding, the man, whose name is Christy Mahon
(Christian Conn), reveals that he recently whacked his father in the
head with a loy, a kind of shovel, killing him. Astonishingly, the
denizens of the pub cheer this news, saying in effect that the old boy
had it coming. Pegeen Mike, who’d previously dissed the boy, feels her
She’s not the only one. Soon a bevy of
local damsels, barefoot groupies, come to idolize the young killer. As
Christy repeats his stories, of which Pegeen soon tires, he finds
himself elevated by his own hype, standing taller, shouting in a
new-found eloquent voice. Along with the girls comes dark-clad Widow
Quin (Emily Robin Fink), rumored to have killed her own husband. The
Widow quickly sees through all the blather and becomes attracted to
Christy by what she sees under the cover story.
In a blustery entrance, we learn that
Christy’s father, Old Mahon (John Michalski), is not dead but wounded.
Rather than have Christy exposed as a fraud, the Widow puts off Old
Mahon, while the young man goes on to win glory on the athletic field.
In a series of reversals, Christy’s fabrication collapses, even when he
threatens to kill the father a second and third time. The villagers
turn against Christy, and while he’s holding off the crowd in a
tug-of-war, Pegeen takes a hot coal from the fireplace and sears his
There is no reversing Christy’s
rite-of-passage, however, and he makes his own peace with his father,
and the two of them leave the stage with nothing but disdain for the
County Mayo peasantry. Alone at the end, Pegeen cries out the most
famous line in Irish theater: “I’ve lost him, I’ve lost the only
playboy of the western world.”
In his last assignment as interim
director at Ithaca’s Hangar Theatre, former Syracuse Stage artistic
head Robert Moss describes Playboy as a real labor of love and
a correction of an earlier production he directed on the West Coast. He
also borrows two cast members from last January’s Syracuse Stage
production of Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore.
Although still a fair-haired leading man
with Kevin Baconish good looks, Christian Conn is almost unrecognizable
in his transition from last winter’s craven lieutenant to this summer’s
self-inventing Christy. For that matter, he makes just as great a leap
from the beaten whelp at the first entrance to the confident young buck
of the exit. Conn, a veteran of Shakespeare and Restoration comedy,
also makes genuine all of Synge’s folk poetry in the dialogue:
“ . . . and one eye to be seeing seven and 20 devils in the twists of
the road and one old timber leg on him to limp into the scalding grave.”
Also borrowed from Inishmore is
thick-set, bald Don Amendolia, seen here as Pegeen’s full-of-himself
father, Michael James. His inebriated second-act entrance in a
wheelbarrow jumps over the implicit cliché to make a neat comic riff.
True, the sustained Hibernian accents of Inishmore and Playboy may
sound the same because the two plays are taking place near each other,
but it’s also true that the Newark-born Moss now feels so comfortable
with Irish plays that he is his own dialect coach.
Synge wrote the role of Pegeen for his
then girlfriend, Molly Allgood, whom other folks found a tad abrasive.
Gretchen Hall wisely does not soften her spiky edges, but she and Moss
keep her at the center of the action so that we see much of the action
through her eyes. As fetching as Hall is in a red wig, Pegeen is not
always seen as a redhead, implicit of fiery passions just below the
surface. This signals the outpouring of tears and grief at her curtain
line, more florid than in other productions.
Moss brings two significant changes in
casting. He makes the Widow Quin a young brunette beauty, instead of
the somewhat assertive older woman seen elsewhere, what we now call a
cougar. Emily Robin Fink, a recent Vassar graduate, gives us a widow
too refined to be a peasant. And Freddy Arsenault’s Shawn is so funny
he really steals scenes. In other productions, Shawn, the most poorly
written role in the play, has been unrewarding to perform.
David Meyer’s atmospheric set design,
expressively lighted by Matt Richards, allows us to follow characters
before entrances and after exits. Gretchen Darrow-Crotty’s costumes,
like Synge’s prose, displays the poetry in poverty.
The Playboy of the Western World
is Robert Moss’ last scheduled stage direction in this part of the
world. We trust we haven’t lost him, the play-maker of Central New
This production runs through Saturday, Aug. 9. See Times Table for information.