What if Christy Mahon, that great outsider of Irish dramatic literature, were black? This is the engaging hook of Bisi Adigun and Roddy Doyle’s updating of John Millington Synge’s classic, “The Playboy of the Western World,” which delivers an engaging evening of theater despite the authors failure to fully explore the radical socio-political implications of their proposal. Helmer Jimmy Fay’s crackingly paced, superbly acted prod seems certain to provide Abbey Theater a.d. Fiach MacConghail the biggest popular hit of his nearly two-year tenure, even as it annoys the bejesus out of Irish theater purists.
Adigun and Doyle stick closely to Synge’s original story of a stranger, Christy (Giles Terera), who arrives in a community and convinces everyone — most importantly, the tavern owner’s besotted daughter — that he’s murdered his father, only to have the old man (Olu Jacobs) stagger through the door.
Here, a remote country shebeen is transformed into a grotty contemporary West Dublin pub, owned by drug-running ganglord Michael (the delightfully oily Liam Carney) and run by his sexy-sullen daughter Pegeen (Eileen Walsh, magnificently slutty in Catherine Fay’s inspired ensembles of pencil-thin jeans, backless T-shirts and mile-high wedges).
The opening scene establishes an excellent, upbeat comic pace and tone. Those familiar with Synge’s play can chortle (or perhaps groan) at the authors’ updatings: The engagement of Pegeen and earnest mama’s boy Sean (wonderfully hapless Laurence Kinlan) is portrayed as an arranged gangland marriage, and two town lunk-heads (Phelim Drew and Joe Hanley, both very funny) become black leather-jacketed heavies.
Vocal audience surprise at the plot twists indicates fewer Irish are familiar with the play than one might expect. The frequent laughter seems that of recognition: Auds love the Dublin slang that is Doyle’s forte and the insertion of real place names and topical events.
The major wobble is the reimagining of Christy not as a desperate member of the social underclass, but an affluent, educated young Nigerian. The writers may be trying to counter the prevalent Irish representation of black people as oppressed refugees and asylum seekers, but the explanations needed to make this new twist work are way too convoluted.
The effect of the authors’ choices, ironically, is to make Christy’s ethnicity not really matter; once his provenance is established, his blackness is pretty much ignored, even when Christy and Pegeen present themselves as a couple.
Adigun and Doyle may be trying to idealistically imagine a racism-free contemporary Ireland, but given the production’s otherwise acute emphasis on naturalism, this smacks of PC whitewash.
The updating works best in the play’s treatment of the culture of celebrity: Synge’s scathing critique of the community’s hypocritical glamorization and then rejection of Christy is more relevant now than ever, and having the giddily hysterical town girls (Aoife Duffin, Kate Brennan, Charlene Gleeson) record him on camera phones is a funny touch.
Terera is a winning, totally credible Christy whose chemistry with both Walsh and Angeline Ball’s Widow Quin (here a velour tracksuit-clad hotty) is palpable. A lone weak spot in the acting company is Jacobs, verbally and sometimes physically unsure as Christy’s bewildered father.
Rumblings about the disrespect being shown to Synge via what some find to be a crude updating are already being heard among Irish theater scholars. But Adigun and Doyle’s impulse to tell a new story through Synge honors the author and argues for the play’s continuing relevance. It’s only a shame they did not use their inspired conceit to dig deeper into the hidden recesses of today’s Irish culture.