The Playboy of the Western World

Lantern Theater Company, St. Stephen's Theater (10th and Ludlow Sts.), through Feb. 18, 829-9002.

Go to Lantern Theater's production of The Playboy of the Western World -- especially now that Lantern has taken up residence in St. Stephen's Theater, recently vacated by the Arden. Don't go with very high expectations, but do go.

The set (by Patty Bennett-Fox) is elaborately realistic but doesn't quite look lived in. The company is able, down to the smallest role, but not spectacular. The stage movement often gets trapped in corners, and at several points (notably in the melee that ends the play) approaches gridlock. And the West Irish accents are (to my ear) so thorough as to be virtually incomprehensible, so you often hear the music more than you can make out the words. I almost felt the way I have when I've seen plays in Swedish (or Rumanian, Lithuanian, Japanese or ancient Greek): content to listen to the melody and to intuit the character's emotions without comprehension.

But all this notwithstanding, John Millington Synge's 1907 play, The Playboy of the Western World, is one of the most delicious comedies ever written. And when director Charles McMahon's production works, it works beautifully.

The premise of the play is perfect. Christy Mahon (Ben White), a snivelly nerd, has wandered into a shebeen in County Mayo, hungry, dirty and frightened, after walking for several days, and confesses to the locals that he has just killed his father during a quarrel while digging spuds on their meager farm. This horrifying deed generates first awe, then admiration, then fanatical adulation. Christy, in White's compelling performance, is transformed by this adulation from a stammering "idjit" into an eloquent and self-confident storyteller, swaggerer, athlete and lover. And the Barkeeper's daughter, Pegeen Mike (Catherine K. Slusar), is transformed by Christy's love from a bitter, defiant, impatient and abrasive scold into a radiant soul, brimming, like Christy, with love and spontaneous love poetry.

By the final act, before the series of not one but three comic reversals that change the play and the characters forever, Christy and Pegeen Mike confess their love for one another ("It's little you'll think if my love's a poacher's, or an earl's itself, when you'll feel my two hands stretched around you, and I squeezing kisses on your puckered lips, till I'd feel a kind a pity for the Lord God is all ages sitting lonesome in His golden chair," and the like, for five or ten minutes). White and Slusar stand diagonally across the room, breathlessly hurling gorgeous language across space, bathing in each other's love, and soaring with their sublime emotions.

At this point, each gorgeous syllable can be heard. You forget the production's shortfalls. You just let the characters, the emotions and the language wash over you.

They're still a few divisions away from the major leagues (even for Philadelphia). But keep your eye on Lantern.

-- Cary M. Mazer