If atmosphere were all, Fiona Buffini’s new Royal National Theater revival of “The Playboy of the Western World” would command attention down to every last bit of thatch of Robert Jones’ set, an unruly shebeen that takes verisimilitude to a deliciously Celtic extreme. As rapturously lit within an inch of its derelict life by Mark Henderson, J.M. Synge’s defining 1907 play can rarely have burned –visually, at least — with such a near-chiaroscuro glow. At times, you can’t tell whether the radiant sheen is pouring forth from the turf fire itself or, perhaps, from some rural outpost far happier than Synge’s nearly windowless Irish backwater where the mob ultimately rules. The fact is, all the indices are in place for the most scrupulous staging imaginable — except, oddly enough, for the players and the play.
The lack of impact is doubly perplexing, given the pertinence of Synge’s themes — the fickle nature of the crowd and the capriciousness by which celebrity worship can exalt and then damn those who fall under its grip. Christy Mahon (Patrick O’Kane) has barely arrived, hunched and coughing, amid the County Mayo peasantry before his tale of patricide has enflamed those gathered to hear it. That’s “a hangin’ crime,” says Flaherty (John Rogan), the local publican, but it brings with it the power to excite.
No wonder Flaherty’s daughter, Pegeen Mike (Derbhle Crotty), chats up Christy, finding in his murderous virility a presence comparable to the “powers and potentates of France and Spain.” She’s willing to play Cleopatra to this stranger’s Antony, which in turn finds Christy triumphantly flexing his ego: “Didn’t I know rightly I was handsome?” he asks the mirror, not long before his own mock-heroism cracks. As Synge’s title suggests, “The Playboy of the Western World” takes a real interest in rhetoric and the way in which self-aggrandizement can also lay a person low.
“A daring fellow is the jewel of the world,” Flaherty decides in act two, the remark an about-face from his earlier judgmental assessment. But there’s a final judgment still to be made, and it leaves no one unmasked, the community bound together not by braggadocio but by betrayal and loss. Is it any surprise that this play famously sparked riots with its Abbey Theater premiere? Beneath the big words lies a fearless portrait of a small-minded small town: a critique from within as leveled by one man against his country.
It takes a leap or two, admittedly, for a 21st-century observer to comprehend fully this play’s reported power, notwithstanding its eternally true perceptions about hero worship that ring out no less clearly today. Far harder to take is the pervasive stage “Oirishness” that seems not so much patronizing (the source of much of the initial outrage) as simply tedious, such behavior theatrically retrograde amid the decades of Irish drama (Friel, McPherson, etc.) that Synge, to be fair, helped make possible.
A stronger cast might override the prevailing artifice, suffusing every psychological cranny of the play in the same way that Henderson’s lighting seems to animate each shabby corner of the play’s misbegotten milieu. But O’Kane — and not for the first time — communicates self-regard at the expense of anything resembling soul: Even worked up into a sweaty frenzy, he’s curiously lifeless.
So, in her own way, is Crotty, a fine actress in other plays — she was wonderful in the 1996 Royal Court premiere of Marina Carr’s “Portia Coughlan” — who doesn’t raise the roof with Pegeen’s final realization that her dreams have all “turned to rot.” One turns with relief to Sorcha Cusack as the scheming Widow Quinn, Christy’s putative confidante, whose laugh comes to seem decidedly cruel. Her eventual duplicity may help seal the doomed Christy’s fate, but Cusack keeps us guessing long after the other players have been outshone by a stage full of peat and soot.