With some rip-roaring performances and a superb production design, A Noise Within’s revival of John Millington Synge’s once scandalous 1907 comedy The Playboy Of The Western World would be all-around wonderful if most of its cast weren’t speaking in a Western Irish accent so thick that it can get downright incomprehensible.  Fortunately, the zest with which the performers attack their roles, some terrific physical comedy, and a storyline which (thank goodness) gets easier to follow as Act One turns to Act Two and Act Three make for an entertaining evening of theater directed by Geoff Elliott.


A quick glance at Playboy’s plot makes it clear why early 20th Century audiences in both Ireland and the United States booed and heckled its first performances.  The Playboy Of The Western World appears, on the surface at least, to celebrate the crime of patricide.  Its hero, Christopher (Christy) Mahon, arrives at a small town tavern claiming to be on the run after having slain his Da by striking him on the head with a loy (a kind of hoe).  Rather than recoil in horror from Christy’s act, however, the folk gathered at the downscale pub find themselves awestruck with admiration at the scruffy stranger’s pluck, and declare him a local celebrity. In a phenomenon as current as the latest reality show or supermarket tabloid, the titular playboy (trickster, in today’s English) achieves his fifteen minutes of fame in short order.

Obviously Synge meant this all as a satire (something which flew over the heads of audiences a hundred years ago), and a clever one at that. Today’s theatergoers’ fancies will be tickled by the sight of every single woman in town going gaga over Christy. That includes the tavern owner’s marriageable daughter Pegeen, the still young Widow Quinn, and a trio of local lassies who seem incapable of controlling their libidinous giggles.  The men are a bit less welcoming, at least initially. Certainly Pegeen’s would-be fiancé, the lily-livered farmer Shawn Keough, would like nothing more than for Christy to hit the road, and the sooner the better.

The plot thickens (and the laughs multiply) when Christy’s father shows up with a head wound, dead only in his son’s active imagination.

Christy is played by Michael A. Newcomer, the StageSceneLa favorite who in role after role keeps taking the challenging route.  His Christy is no dummy, simply someone who’s not had the best luck in life until the day when his celebrity status reveals the confident, even cocky young man that’s been hiding within all these years. It’s yet again outstanding work from a leading man who keeps reinventing himself role after role. Among supporting players, the delightful Brian Hostenske is easily the standout as fraidy-cat Shawn, giving the kind of Technicolor performance that inspires phrases like, “you can’t take your eyes off of him.” Newcomer and Hostenske are also, coincidentally or not, the two actors most easily understood despite the many regional colloquialisms of Synge’s script.

The supporting cast all give broad, colorful performances perfectly in tune with Synge’s tongue in cheek tone, from Lindsay Gould’s feisty Pegeen to Jill Hill’s bawdy Widow Quinn to Elliott’s thick-skulled Old Mahon.  Apollo Dukakis is marvelous as always as Pegeen’s father Michael James Flaherty and he and pub mates Philly Cullen (William Dennis Hunt) and Jimmy Farrell (Tim Venable)  generate considerable laughter with their drunken antics in Act Two. (What would an Irish play be without its drunkards?) Rebecca Mason-Wygal, Alicia Bruckman, and Caitlyn Tella) are a hoot and a holler as a trio of village girls agog over Christy.  (We’d call them groupies these days.) Maxwell Schneller completes the cast as Peasant.

All of Synge’s characters have the gift of exaggeration, their words spiced with colorful images and turns of phrases spoken in the Gaelic-influenced Mayo County Irish of the era. Unfortunately, a lot of this is lost at A Noise Within.  With so much of Synge’s language needing translation into contemporary American English, it is essential that the audience grasp at least the words being spoken, if not their definitions. One way to insure this would be to have the cast speak a modified-for-American-ears Irish accent instead of “real thing” as coached by Nike Doukas. A slight reduction in speed of delivery and extra care in articulation would help greatly as well. On the audio recording of the Pacific Resident Theatre production of The Playboy Of The Western World (recorded for L.A. Theatre Works), the entire cast’s pronunciation is crystal clear. The same could easily have been true at A Noise Within had the director pain more attention to comprehensibility.

Elliott’s direction does get high marks for the production’s physical comedy scenes which have been staged for maximum hilarity.  There’s Christy hiding his manly frame behind the pub’s front door door to escape discovery (a device still prevalent on sitcoms today), followed by the titular Playboy’s attempt to escape an angry mob by donning a skirt and scarf, and finally the scene in which the men of the village attempt to string Christy up. Each scene promises and delivers laughs aplenty.

One thing that absolutely cannot be faulted is the gorgeous production design, beginning with Stephen Gifford’s splendid Irish tavern set, which looks almost as if it could have been shipped over direct from Eire. Soojin Lee’s costumes are so beautifully “distressed” that they look to be the filthy, smelly rags these characters would have worn.  Ken Booth’s lighting design subtly draws audience focus to the appropriate stage area and enhances moods accordingly. Matt Richter’s sound design integrates period Irish tunes which situate us in just the right time and place. Meghan Kennedy is production stage manager.

In this era of movies which inspire raves for their quirkiness and reality shows which captivate audiences with their outlandish twists and turns, The Playboy Of The Western World plays better than ever. Despite too much of the dialog whooshing over audience heads, the current A Noise Within production ends up earning cheers at curtain calls, mine among them.  If only I could have understood a bit more of what these Irish folk were talking about.

A Noise Within, 234 South Brand Blvd., Glendale.

–Steven Stanley
May 12, 2010
                                                                   Photos: Craig Schwartz

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