FIRST PERFORMED in 1907, The Playboy of the Western World is set in a small Irish village, among perpetually drunken townspeople starved for a little drama in their lives. When a handsome stranger named Christy Mahon (Chris Murray) rolls into town, claiming to have just murdered his father, the whole village swoons for his tragic, romantic tale—until the tale gets a little too real, and the villagers have to reckon with the uncomfortable distance between fantasy and reality.
I suspect there's much to chew on here, about mythmaking, hero worship, and wish fulfillment. I couldn't quite sink my teeth into Artists Rep's production, though, because I couldn't understand most of it. This production of Playboy compounds the script's often-dense language and unfamiliar terminology with a gung-ho commitment to a regionally specific Irish accent that's quite difficult to parse. It's clear that a lot of effort went into the accents—dialogue coach Mary McDonald-Lewis even gets a column in the program to talk about the, uh, terroir of language. From where the audience sits, though, all that's clear is that the dialogue isn't. (Overheard in the lobby, post show: "It was pretty good, but it would have been better if I'd understood a single word they said." Exactly, old guy, and no you can't have my job.)
After struggling to stay awake and engaged during the show's hard-to-follow first act, I got a cup of coffee at intermission only to find I didn't really need it. Playboy goes full-slapstick in act two, as the truth about Christy Mahon emerges. The hijinks, they are wacky—but they're also light and easy to understand, thanks in particular to some strong performances from supporting character actors Allen Nause, Bill Geisslinger, and Jeb Berrier. Director Dámaso Rodriguez seems unusually attuned to the way sound works onstage—crowd noise and silence are used to great effect, and the tiered staging breaks up the space in clever, surprising ways.
The best way to experience Playboy is probably by doing some pre-show homework first: Even a cursory familiarity with characters, plot, and terminology will go a long way.