Irish scribes from Brian Friel to Martin McDonagh have been writing variations on J.M. Synge’s 1907 “Playboy of the Western World” for decades, but the venerable comedy rarely gets a Gotham staging. In almost any form, it’s a show worth seeing, and the Pearl Theater’s deliberately unshowy production hits several of the play’s high notes. Helmer and new Pearl a.d. J.R. Sullivan sometimes confuses fidelity with blandness, and his leads aren’t yet quite sure of themselves, but several good supporting perfs find the populous play’s wonderfully mean-spirited heart.
Synge’s uptempo love song to Irish prevarication is a perfect choice to kick off the Pearl’s new season, its first at City Center since the company left its East Village space. It’s a simple enough story, to begin with: Christy Mahon (Sean McNall) is the eighth wonder of the world to the people of County Mayo, a sleepy little district about as far from the urban centers of Dublin and Belfast as you can get without falling into the sea. The reason for Christy’s fame is simple and stirring: armed only with a loy (a spade-like tool that sounds an awful lot like “lie” in an Irish mouth), Christy has killed his father dead and is now on the run from the law. The local girls are beside themselves with joy.
The gents are more divided in their opinions — Shawn Keough (Ryan G. Metzger) is downright hostile. He’s a scrawny religious scholar set to wed local beauty Margaret “Pegeen Mike” Flaherty (Lee Stark), who’s fallen head over heels for Christy. Still, some of the guys are fine with the newcomer, and one (Dominic Cuskern) thinks he’s probably a good match for Pegeen Mike, a barmaid who needs a stronger man than Shawn around. “Now, by the grace of God, herself will be safe this night, with a man killed his father holding danger from the door!” he reasons.
Veteran Pearl set designer Harry Feiner’s ramshackle old bar is one of the production’s high points, and seeing the locale realized makes the homages paid in plays like “The Cripple of Inishmaan” all the more obvious. What the production as a whole could really use, though, is the energy level the Druid players recently brought to that McDonagh play at the Atlantic. “Playboy” is a sad comedy, but it’s a comedy nonetheless, and it needs more juice than it gets from Sullivan & Co. Part of the problem is the two intermissions, breaking up acts that last 45 minutes at the longest. But the main issue is one of confidence.
McNall and Stark are young, but they’re very good when they’re in the moment. That’s not often, which means that for a lot of the play, neither of them knows where to put his or her hands or which way to look. Two plausible diagnoses would be bad casting or vague direction, and the uniformly weird accents would seem to bear the latter out — too much time spent trilling Middle-earth-sounding R’s; not enough time going over blocking.
It’s up to the bit players, then, to save the day, and they frequently do, especially the ursine Joe Kady as Christy’s father, hardheaded in every sense of the word. Company regular Bradford Cover does a nice turn as Pegeen Mike’s father, a fermented beverage enthusiast, and Cuskern is very funny as the town dumbass.
Ultimately, the production’s shortcomings seem like things that will fix themselves as the run continues, and with a few more performances under the cast’s belts, this “Playboy” may grow into a worthy staging of a great old play.