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Revival of J. M. Synge's rueful comedy has power without polish

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The Playboy of the Western World Play by J. M. Synge. Directed by Joe Dowling. The Roundabout Theatre Company has inaugurated its comfortably renovated auditorium at 100 East 17th Street with a well-intended gesture to a modern Irish classic. The riots and controversy that greeted J. M. Synge's ``The Playboy of the Western World,'' beginning in 1907, have long since yielded to admiration and respect. The Roundabout production is the latest of periodic revivals.

Synge's wild, comic folk tale -- mingling the sardonic and farcical with the tenderly romantic -- observes the effect of a supposed patricide on a credulous peasant community. A fugitive with a fanciful gift of gab, Christy Mahon (Ken Marshall), dazzles the credulous locals with his gory tale, becomes an instant hero, and wins the heart of Pegeen Mike (Kate Burton), the village tavern-keeper's spirited daughter. How Christy achieves his manhood and Pegeen loses her heart's desire is the substance of Synge's boisterous and ultimately rueful comedy.

Mr. Marshall's Christy believably accomplishes the transformation from mere bravado to a kind of heroic stature and takes eloquent flight in the wooing of Pegeen. As the object of his ardor, an attractively auburn-haired Miss Burton seems more adamantly shrewish than romantically susceptible. James Greene is excellent as the doughty parent whom Christy didn't slay after all, and Jarlath Conroy has some comical moments as Pegeen's faint-hearted fianc'e. The cast includes Rex Everhart as the heroine's bibulous father and Caroline Kava as the amorous Widow Quin.

Although staged by Joe Dowling, Abbey veteran and artistic director of the Irish National Theatre, the Roundabout revival seems groping for a consistent tone and a comic resilience to match the play's mercurial shifts of mood. Under the prevailing production system, the cast has scarcely had time or opportunity to develop a sense of consistent ensemble. Furthermore, some of the players sound as if they had not yet got the pitch of the new Roundabout surroundings. The performance suffers from both shouting and unintelligibility. The farcical tussles come off best. Some of the present inadequacies will no doubt be remedied at subsequent performances. (``The Playboy'' runs through March 17.)

Michael Sharp has designed a picturesquely scruffy shebeen to fill the wide Roundabout stage; A. Christina Giannini designed the turn-of-the-century costumes; and Judy Rasmuson lighted the revival.


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