Review: City Lit Theater’s Playboy of the Western World Synges the Old Songs

In 1907, John Millington Synge’s landmark Playboy of the Western World caused riots everywhere it premiered—Dublin, New York, and even, eventually, here in Chicago.

Irish patriots claimed the play portrayed the Irish peasantry as violent, foolish and amoral. What’s more, rioters objected to the filthy language of the play: Synge dared to use the word “shift” to refer to a woman’s undergarment.

So, they rioted, pelted the stage with rotten vegetables and shouted down the actors while Lady Gregory, doyenne of the Irish literary revival and one of the play’s producers, stood at the front of the theater and encouraged the actors: “Play on!”

Joshua Servantez, Linsey Falls, Michaela Volt, Kyle Burch, Matt Rosin. Photo by Steve Graue.

These days, the now-classic garners warm chuckles, not protests, and City Lit Theater’s current revival, directed by Brian Pastor, is no exception. The chuckles are there but the production needs tighter pacing to bring out the farce in Synge’s script.

The story is an ingenious one: a lovable rogue (Christy Mahan, winningly played by Joshua Servantez) shows up at an isolated village on the wild west coast of Ireland with a tall tale of killing his own father in self-defense. The endearing rascal promptly earns the affections of the women and the admiration of the men, who celebrate him as a great hero—the eponymous “playboy of the western world.”

Until his supposedly dead father shows up.

What happens next is a tidy study of what Charles Mackay famously called “the madness of crowds:” the scoundrel loses his following, attempts to regain it through a second round of violence, and then faces a rope and an angry mob. “There’s a wide gap between a gallows tale and a dirty deed,” explains Christy’s erstwhile love interest Pegeen Mike (Michaela Volt).

Brenda Wlazlo, Joshua Servantez. Photo by Steve Graue.

But Playboy is a comedy (mostly), so all’s well, at least for Christy and his dad, who leave more than one villager wondering at their actions and rueful at missed opportunities.

Servantez plays the central role of Christy Mahan with an almost Chaplinesque combination of playfulness and sorrow. A figure both of fun and pity, it’s a pleasure to watch him navigate both fame and infamy so deftly and with such a comic flare.

Brenda Wlazlo also stands out as the Widow Quinn—a 30-year-old dowager with eyes for Christy and schemes to both hoodwink and help him. Wlazlo plays the Widow as a lusty, seductive woman in her prime, bringing a rueful sensuality to the role.

Praise also goes to Adam Bitterman, who plays the gruff Old Mahan—Christy’s father. If you close your eyes, you might be forgiven for thinking Bitterman is performing a spot-on impression of Wallace Beery’s Long John Silver from 1934’s Treasure Island; his voice is almost exact. But watch Bitterman with your eyes open: he’s in a comedy and he knows it and more than earns his share of guffaws.

Linsey Falls, Adam Bitterman, Kyle Burch. Photo by Steve Graue.

The show features an excellent set by Ray Toler and a solid cast (although set your Irish brogue deciphers to high).

The two-hour show (one intermission) runs through August 14 at City Lit Theater (1020 W. Byrn Mawr Ave.—inside Edgewater Presbyterian Church). Tickets ($34) are available at www.citylit.org.

For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.

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Doug Mose

Doug Mose grew up on a farm in western Illinois, and moved to the big city to go to grad school. He lives with his husband Jim in Printers Row. When he’s not writing for Third Coast Review, Doug works as a business writer.