The year was 1907, and the newish Abbey Theater, barely out of swaddlings, was debuting J.M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World. As the story is told, during the third act, the audience erupted in protest at the unflattering depiction of Irishness. The performance shut down, followed by a week of riots, and Synge was castigated for his unseemly vulgarity.
Fast forward one hundred years and Nigerian writer-director-scholar Bisi Adigun is commissioned by Arambe Productions to bring his adaptation of Synge’s play to the stage. He collaborated with popular Irish novelist Roddy Doyle, winner of the prestigious Booker Prize for fiction. Together they created “a new playboy,” reimagined as an asylum seeker from Nigeria, and their work premiered at The Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 2007. The collaborators provoke us to examine serious questions. What is it that enables a man to enter and make his home in a new country? Is it the nature of the man’s character or the story he tells?
Solas Nua has mounted the play at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in Washington, DC, and doesn’t weigh the audience down in polemics. The production is, at times, a laugh riot. I’m not sure who is having more fun, we in the audience or the tight ensemble on stage.
Director Shanara Gabrielle and Scenic Designer Nadir Bey have made the most of limited quarters by placing the action between two banks of chairs. In this “alley” of a playing space, an outfitted Irish pub immerses the audience in the goings-on. At one end is a door designating the pub’s entrance but it also stands at the entrance of the theater so that characters and audience latecomers overlap and spill in together, adding to the informal gaiety of the evening.
The cast of characters is broadly etched, and all of them show us the rough-and-tumble, less-than-heroic sides of human nature. Rebecca Ballinger is Pegeen, manager of the pub, which also fronts a petty-theft operation headed by her “Da,” Michael. Ballinger depicts the restlessness and anger of a young woman trapped in a life not of her choosing.
Her character captures our sympathies as she longs for something other than this family of gang hoodlums and a greasy-haired, chinless coward of a fiancé. Ballinger is in turn careless and rough-tongued then confused and vulnerable and manages to carry off the biggest arc in the drama.
Ian Armstrong is the “Da,” and he and his two sidekicks, played by Ryan Tumulty and Matthew Pauli, bring some of the most multifaceted and marvelous interactions of the evening. Armstrong blusters and rages, but you can see, just in the way he slings his fenced goods in a panic to the others, that he is a more petty than serious operator. Pauli plays Philly, probably the smartest of the three in just the way he is always watching. He’s the first to figure out the newcomer’s story and is both the most sympathetic and potentially most lethal. Tumulty plays Jimmy, a follower, who is always behind, almost always befuddled, mouth agape, and slack-jawed stupid. He gives one hundred percent in every moment. These three clowns are endlessly fascinating to watch for the detail in their work as actors.
The chorus of three females, who become groupies to the new “playboy” in town, are by turns silly, shrill, and aggressive. Rachel Lawhead, Danielle Gallo, and Erin Denman are etched in a style more situational comedy than honest-to-god multidimensional characters.
James Lacey, a gifted British-Paraguayan actor, joins the Solas Nua cast as Sean, the lackluster, luckless fiancé. He manages to fire up in the audience both cruel ridiculing laughter at the fellow and total sympathy for such a loser all in one.
Central to the whole dramatic story, and around whom everyone else gets lit up trying to get into his head, is Christy. Everyone projects onto the stranger what they want: a new story and object of their need. Jamil Joseph takes on the archetypal role and displays both physical versatility and the emotional changes needed to pull off the character’s chameleon nature. Joseph convinces us as his character convinces himself that he has the cojones to succeed at patricide and simultaneously conquer all the women in town. Then, in a split second, the veil falls, and he seems pathetic and sometimes heartbreaking.
The self-reveal moments are also where the new-coined story of a new immigrant comes to the fore, enlarging the story. What are the pressures on someone who wants to ingratiate himself into a new culture? To what lengths will a person go to be respected and integrated into an unfamiliar community? And how does one read or misread the cues to fit in?
The character of Christopher’s father, Malomo (in the original play Mahon), is played by JJ Johnson, and he serves as an anchor both emotionally and culturally for “the playboy.”
Johnson embodies an elderly gentleman of distinction and great character. He has come to fetch his son back home. Whatever the problems before the play’s action between father and son, Johnson makes us feel compassion for this man and understand his long journey and the ends he would go to save his son from a lost-boy life.
Widow Quin in Synge’s original play was a force of nature and, to my mind, one of the great comic roles in 20th-century drama. The recasting of her as a silly, randy old woman gave me some unease. Actress Jessica Lefkow had moments where she pulled off the comedy, but the character never drew our sympathy, whether in the writing or acting choices, and finally the widow came across as less than the sum of the parts.
Nonetheless, Solas Nua has given us another grand play in its mission of drawing exclusively from contemporary Irish drama. Their productions are always smart, thoughtful, and genuinely entertaining. Thanks to the sensibilities of Producer and Artistic Director Rex Daugherty, the ensemble acting tends to be top-notch. (To judge the way they work up a show in true collaboration, just look at the layout of “Meet the Artists” bios: following the two writers, everyone, whether on or behind the scenes, is listed alphabetically.) The play reminds us we are a small world after all, and migration is a global crisis.
Running Time: Two hours with one intermission.
The Playboy of the Western World runs through November 20, 2022, presented by Solas Nua performing in Lab II at The Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE, Washington, DC. For the schedule and to purchase tickets ($5–$45), go online or contact the Box Office at (202) 399-7993 or [email protected] from 11 AM – 5 PM Monday through Friday, or two hours prior to a performance.
The program for The Playboy of the Western World is online here.
COVID Safety: All patrons are required to be masked while inside performance spaces. The use of N95 masks is encouraged. Masks may be briefly removed when actively eating or drinking in designated areas. The complete Atlas Performing Arts Center COVID Health and Safety Policy is here.
The Playboy of the Western World
Written by Bisi Adigun and Roddy Doyle (Adapted from J.M. Synge)
Directed by Shanara Gabrielle
Jamil Joseph (Christopher), Rebecca Ballinger (Pegeen), James Carlos Lacey (Sean), Ian Armstrong (Michael), Jessica Lefkow (Widow Quinn), Ryan Tumulty (Jimmy), Matthew Pauli (Philly), Erin Denman (Sarah), Danielle Gallo (Honor), Rachel Lawhead (Susan), and JJ Johnson (Malomo)
Nadir Bey (scenic design), Danielle Preston (costume design), Delaney Bray (sound design), Sarah Tundermann (lighting design), Dominic DeSalvio (associate lighting design), Delaney Bray (sound design), Sierra Young (fight and intimacy choreography), Sulmane Maigadi (Cultural consultant), Jonathan Holmes (associate director), Anderson Wells (associate director), Regina Vitale (stage manager), Mary Elizabeth Doebel (assistant stage manager), Jessica Trementozzi (assistant scenic design), Charlotte La Nasa (assistant producer/production manager), Dean Leong (master electrician), and Rex Daugherty (producer/dialect coach)
Solas Nua to stage U.S. premiere of new ‘Playboy of the Western World’
(news story, October 21, 2022)