Life Upon The Wicked Stage: Playboy May Get Lucky Second Time Around
by Edward Real
There is probably no characteristic of New Orleans theatre more disheartening than the habit of producing the same plays again and again. Rep's season opened with a version of A.R. Gurney's much overworked Lover Letters, which was seen last Valentine's Day at Tulane. As its second offering, Southern Rep opted to revive the Beefield production of John Millington Synge's Playboy Of The Western World, which was a quasi succes d'estime at the CAC a few years ago. That means that then it was a pretty good production of a neglected classic that did little box-office business.
In a recent interview, Playboy's director Perry Martin maintained that the play's failure to sell many tickets in its initial CAC staging was due to the fact that its production coincided with the sensationalism of the O.J. Simpson arrest playing itself out on television. One might surmise that a savvy producer and director would see that this play now has a certain contemporary resonance because of those events. It deals, after all, with the public's vacillating attitudes towards a young man who has committed a murder. Surely such a plot seems more incendiary in today's world (where acquitted killers sign autographs) than it did in Synge's day, when the notion of such public gullibility caused rioting in the theatre.
Synge's play, of course, has much more going for it than its accidental contemporary parallels. First it is a play that resolved a controversy among the leaders of the Irish Renaissance over language - Yeats advocated poetry, Lady Gregory advocated the natural rhythms of the Irish speech, and Synge managed to interweave the two. Second, this is a play of masterful comic reversals, not just in its plot, but in its allusions. It sets the Oedipus and Odyssesus legends on their ears and defies tradition by making women the sexual aggressors in the battle of the sexes. Third, Playboy is a deeply symbolic work, tracing the moral growth of its hero through three ritualistic slayings of the same foe.
I'm not sure any of these elements are conveyed to the audience any more strongly than those oddly overlooked contemporary resonances. This Playboy never seems to engage us on any level except the literal one of a farcical story of reversals of fortune. Admittedly, this is a strong enough play and production to be appealing in that way, but there should be more effort to make the audience realize that this is not just knockabout farce with an Irish brogue.
The cast is mostly a capable assembly. Michael Cahill may not have achieved true heroic stature for his Christy Mahon at play's end, but on his way he has nimbly delineated the ups and downs of Christy's career with Irish charm. Kimberly Patterson is a wonderful Pegeen Mike, mastering both dialect and salty characterization. Janet Shea lustily portrays the aging widow who understands and accepts the sham hero as he really is. Doug Mundy is a cantankerous Old Mahon, and Robert Montgomery is convincing as the weak-willed rival for Pegeen's affections. Ralph Lister overacts as Philly Cullen, and Randy Cheramie would be fine as the innkeeper if his accent didn't march all the way across Europe. Michael Sullivan is, as usual, Michael Sullivan.
Though I personally prefer the seemingly frivolous charms of Noel Coward to the literary ambitions of Synge,....