Lesser Mores

I Killed My Father...Now Kiss Me!: Christy Mahon (Michael Hayden, left) discovers the aphrodisiac qualities of patricide with Pegeen Mike (Michelle O'Neill) in the Guthrie Theater's Playboy of the Western World.

by Tad Simons

Playboy of the Western World

The Guthrie Theater

PLAYS DON'T PISS people off the way they used to. Why, when John Millington Synge's Playboy of the Western World opened at Ireland's Abbey Theatre in 1907, incensed audience members cursed and heckled the actors so tenaciously that police had to be called in to control the disturbance. A review of opening night in The Freeman's Journal hurled invective in lieu of rotten vegetables: "The blood boils with indignation as one recalls the incidents, expressions, and ideas of this squalid, offensive production," one reviewer wrote, adding that "no adequate idea can be given of the barbarous jargon, the elaborate and incessant cursings of these repulsive creatures."

Such passionate disgust! Over a play! Oh, to live in a time when you could write sentences like that--about anything. Now, of course, Synge's play is generally considered a comic masterpiece, and the hearty brogue in which it is written is regarded as one of Ireland's highest literary achievements. And Guthrie artistic director Joe Dowling was once head of the very theater where Synge's play was spawned. This proximity to the play's roots confers a certain amount of authority on the Dowling-directed version currently gracing the Guthrie stage, complicating the efforts of a mere American of Germanic-Scottish descent to second-guess him.

Consequently, as much as fun as it would be to spew vitriol at certain aspects of this odd and perplexing rural melodrama, I am duty bound to report that Playboy contains just about everything we have come to expect from Dowling: exquisite acting, abundant laughs, fine ensemble work, and an unerring sense of realism. This last detail is especially noteworthy, since the central premise around which Playboy revolves isn't realistic or believable in the least. That is, unless you read the program notes, which are filled with learned opinion to the contrary.

Playboy asks us to believe that a dimwitted young farmboy could arrive as a stranger to a small Irish village, admit to murdering his father, and, instead of being turned over to the police, find himself transformed into a hero. Conversely, when it is discovered that said farmboy isn't really a murderer, we are asked to believe that the townspeople would revolt against him and that the women who swooned over him when they thought he was a killer would despise him when they discovered he was not. In this town, Charles Manson would be elected mayor in no time.

Theoretically, this topsy-turvy logic is a result of the Irish tendency to believe implicitly in people's goodness--to believe, for instance, that a man would never kill his father unless he absolutely had to do it. Or that anyone would ever lie about such a thing. Those are tough premises for an American audience to swallow, yet they are precisely the ones Playboy asks us to accept at face value. And for the sake of appreciating Synge's "masterpiece," we have little choice but to oblige.

Fortunately, there are plenty of other reasons to go see Playboy, chief among them being Michael Hayden's brash performance as the Playboy, Christy Mahon; Michelle O'Neill as the tempestuous Margaret Flaherty; Kevin Kling as her simpering suitor; and, most impressive of all, Paul O'Brien's demonic turn as Christy's vengeful father. As usual, Dowling has assembled a stellar cast and, because he knows the play so well, coaxes nuanced performances out of even the most incidental characters.

The language, too, is a treat. To be honest, a good 40 percent of the dialogue is totally unintelligible, so thick and rich is the local dialect. Terms like "peeler," "poteen," "shebeen," and "turbary," are flung throughout, but even when the sense of the words is lost, the music of the language is not. One of Synge's greatest accomplishments was in elevating a bunch of bar blather into art. So, when Margaret's father exclaims, "A daring fellow is the jewel of the world," the townspeople's fascination for Christy Mahon is summed up in a sentence. And when, at the end, Margaret laments, "There's a great gap between a gallant story and a dirty deed," Christy's downfall is explained just as succinctly.

Whether you believe it or not is another matter entirely. Half of the fun of seeing Playboy is wrestling with the incongruities and seemingly nonsensical behavior of the townspeople. For the modern world, Playboy has plenty of thought-provoking things to say about the fickle and often ridiculous nature of fame, as well as people's paradoxical need to build up and tear down their heroes. At one time, these ideas may have had the power to outrage. Now, they're just part of another fine play at the Guthrie.

Playboy of the Western World continues at the Guthrie Theater through February 14; call 377-2224.

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