When Irish guys are smiling: Kelly Wade Zobel (left), Tony Cohen and Kevin Stephens.
When Irish guys are smiling: Kelly Wade Zobel (left), Tony Cohen and Kevin Stephens.

Myth Congeniality

lthough critics and audiences have been devout in their praise of upstart playwrights like Martin McDonagh, the recent Irish invasion of New York hasn't left everyone breathless with excitement. In fact, more than a few theater practitioners claim that the sound of broguish prose is drowning out America's distinct, native voices -- which, ironically, have for decades been significantly shaped by the works of one Eugene Gladstone O'Neill, a failed poet (and son of an Irish-born actor) who used his inherited theatrical blarney to dramatize the ghosts of his past. In the process, he became the only American playwright to win the Nobel prize for literature.Nationalistic sentiments aside, McDonagh's success might lie in the fact that he's managed to loot his ancestors' theatrical war chest more efficiently than his Yankee cousins have picked over O'Neill's bequeathed genius. After all, nearly a century before New Yorkers raved about McDonagh's iconoclastic portraits of Irish life, Dublin spectators found John Millington Synge's The Playboy of the Western World worth rioting about. (The Abbey Theatre's opening-night patrons were miffed that a mere wordsmith would dare to comically desecrate the rule of law, family honor and, albeit in a roundabout way, God.) This play, which fractured Irish legends long before McDonagh got the bright idea to shatter them, is being presented at the Acoma Center by Tir Ná nÓg, a community troupe dedicated to producing plays with Irish connections. And while director Martin McGovern's version doesn't register much of a tremor on the provocation meter, the faithful, if spotty, revival at least suggests the idea that myths -- and the men brazen enough to explode them -- claim a higher place in our understanding than do life's everyday, unvarnished truths.

Synge, who based his 1907 piece on his frequent sojourns to Ireland's west country, depicts the residents of County Mayo as a hardscrabble bunch whose lilting speech belies their crude behavior. Shortly after we're introduced to the local watering hole's denizens, one character offhandedly relates that a notorious yokel was recently sentenced to a six-month prison term "for maiming ewes" -- a charmingly worded report that barely elicits so much as a muffled grunt from the assembled gentry. A few minutes later, though, a stranger named Christy Mahon tells a tale that exceeds the general horror threshold. Naturally, he has little trouble drawing a crowd. What's more, upon hearing Christy's claim that he used a potato spade to bash out his father's brains -- a specious account that seems as full of holes as his da's supposedly empty head -- the menfolk leap to action in ways that evidently aren't reserved in County Mayo for the wanton butchery of farm animals.

Having secured an appreciative audience -- and, more important, a place to sleep for the night -- Christy manufactures ever more elaborate versions of his yarn for anyone who will listen, including a couple of gullible spinsters. Eventually, he sets his sights on winning the affections of the comely barkeep, Pegeen Flaherty, who yearns to be rescued from her drudgery by the sort of rogue suggested by the play's title. Just when Christy seems poised to buckle the knees of his bride-to-be, however, his wounded father shows up on the pub's doorstep, bandaged head and all. And for the rest of the two-hour comedy, the braggart Christy wages a four-pronged battle with his da's version of events, the townsfolk's fanatical hero worship, Pegeen's wavering loyalty, and his own, perhaps divinely inspired, delusions of grandeur.


The Playboy of the Western World

Presented by Tir N ng Theatre Company

Acoma Center, 1080 Acoma Street

Through June 10


Apart from an overall tendency to gallop through scenes that require lighter, more lyrical touches, most of the actors render decent portrayals. A couple cross over into caricature, but the majority reflect the homespun poetry and sense of wild abandon that Synge obviously found alluring. Although his Christy is more frenzied than intoxicated by his newfound status as King of the Bog, Dan O'Neill proves credible during his scenes with Trina Magness's lusty Pegeen; because he's vocally quieted and physically corralled by the close-quarters circumstances of their tête-à-têtes, O'Neill finally manages to summon Christy's poetic desire to fulfill his pie-in-the-sky dreams. (And he's also deprived of any opportunity to thrust one or both arms heavenward in a too-frequently-used gesture that suggests Christy has a private pipeline to the Almighty.) For her part, Magness locates most of the serving wench's down-and-dirty humanity, as well as her palpable fear that the blowhard in her midst is perhaps the closest real-life equivalent to the man of her dreams. Kelley Wade Zobel and Tara M.E. Thompson are endearing as a pair of hopeful busybodies, and Kevin Stephens is convincing as a barfly who alternately lurches and pontificates.

Even though director McGovern doesn't attempt to draw obvious parallels between Synge's view of life and McDonagh's modern-day reinterpretations, his entertaining production does convey a fairly radical notion: Maybe the Irish aren't any better at telling stories than we are; maybe their plays aren't more romantic, more imbued with spirit-rousing poetry. But no matter how unwilling Ireland's present craftsmen are to bear a torch for the ways of the past, the bonfires of tradition burn bright in their works. And that's a sight more than can be said for Broadway's display of puppet extravaganzas and celebrity lounge acts.AMaybe the Irish arent any better at telling stories than we are.


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