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A Caribbean `Playboy'. Poetry is missing from new adaptation. PERFORMANCE: THEATER

ONE of the great plays in Western literature is John M. Synge's lyric tragicomedy of life in the Wild West of Ireland, ``The Playboy of the Western World.'' One of the characters in Synge's play says, ``It's a long story; you'd be destroyed listening.'' And it's even more destroyed Synge himself would be, if he could see ``The Playboy of the West Indies,'' by Mustapha Matura.

In an apparent hommage to the Synge play, Matura has transposed it to the West Indies, retaining the basic characters, their relationships, and Synge's plot, but changing the names of the characters and the locale, and using the local slang instead of the imaginative language unique to Synge's Ireland. His adaptation was seen here recently at Washington's Arena Stage.

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As Synge notes in a preface to one published edition of his 1904 play, ``In a good play every speech should be as fully flavoured as a nut or apple, and such speeches cannot be written by anyone who works among people who have shut their lips on poetry.''

In Matura's ``Playboy'' there are some vivid and amusing scenes, but there is no poetry. Synge's play takes place in a country pub ``on a wild coast of Mayo'' in western Ireland, where Christy Mahon, a stranger out of the night, announces that he has fled after killing his father.

Matura's play is set in Mayaro on the east coast of Trinidad, in a rum shop where a young sugar-cane worker who has killed his father seeks refuge. He becomes a local hero for his courage in self-defense.

Synge's Christy becomes Matura's Ken, the playboy, who speaks in the local dialect: ``All yuh ent satisfied a man come among yuh an' give life, interest, and daring, day yuh children go be please ter hear about. No, yuh have ter see 'im pull down too, all in one day eh? What a greedy place is Mayaro.'' Lacking is the lyricism of Synge's Christy: ``It's well you know it's a lonesome thing to be passing small towns with the lights shining sideways when the night is down, or going in strange places with a dog noising before you and a dog noising behind ... and you passing on with an empty, hungry stomach failing from your heart.''

In addition, Matura has seasoned his island dialogue with Trinidadian slang unfamiliar to much of a non-West Indies audience. Crucial lines turn on an understanding of words and phrases like ``Obeah woman,'' ``Packoti house,'' ``buising,'' ``jab-jab,'' ``jumbie,'' and ``Mam pools.''

There are spirited performances by some of the cast, including Tonia Rowe as Peggy, the bar owner's daughter who falls for the playboy; Leon Addison Brown, the charmer who plays the playboy; and LaDonna Mabry, who pulls out all the stops as the outrageous Mama Benin. The energetic cast also includes L. Peter Callender, Sullivan Walker, Keith Johnson, James Brown-Orleans, Margo Hall, Faye Richie, and David Toney.

Adrianne Lobel designed the handsome, steamy set, and Marjorie Slaiman the colorful costumes. Tazewell Thompson, who directed, kept the pace fast and the feeling comic, but this production is as far from the classic as Trinidad is from Mayo.

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