There is a charmingly exotic flavor in John Millington Synge's "The Playboy of the Western World," now being performed at the Eisenhower Theater by the National Theatre of Ireland -- known to its friends as the Abbey Players. There is also an odd familiarity -- a feeling that, under their comic exteriors, these odd Irish peasants of a bygone time resemble people we know, perhaps even ourselves.

"Playboy" is spoken in prose, but a major part of its charm lies in the music made by the words themselves. It is not exactly in a foreign language, but a kind of English you do not hear on the streets of Washington -- an English whose strange richness, songlike rhythms and constant inclination to burst into poetry may put you in mind of William Shakespeare.

As Synge or one of his characters might have put it: "Sure and somebody could be making a good thing of it, to be after selling librettos outside of the theater this night and the next and on into October."

The Kennedy Center has printed a glossary of 50-odd words from the play that you might want to study. Some seem obvious -- "ass: donkey"; "unbeknownst: secretly" -- but others are unfamiliar -- "loy," for example, "a narrow sharp spade," which figures in the plot as a murder weapon. It is useful to learn that "playboy" means a "hoaxer" in Act 2, when young Christy Mahon, a bedraggled stranger in a small village of County Mayo, is shocking and charming the local peasants with tales of his wild life, and "athlete" in Act 3, when he takes the top prizes in all the local sports, "for racing, leaping, pitching, and the Lord knows what," as the scheming, hotblooded Widow Quin describes it.

But the vocabulary is not an insuperable problem. Even if you miss a word now and then, the basic plot is not hard to follow. The Abbey Players, international-class pros down to the smallest walk-on role, use body language as fluently as any dance troupe and they mime eloquently what they are saying. What you really want a printed text for is to take home and read later, savoring not only the language but the themes that flicker across the text like lightning in a stormy summer sky.

Listen to a minute of its spoken music: Christy describing the loneliness of a fugitive from justice, which echoes, in one way or another, the loneliness of every major character in the play: "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, or drawn to the cities where you'd hear a voice kissing and talking deep love in every shadow of the ditch, and you passing on with an empty, hungry stomach failing from your heart."

Besides the poetry of it, the distilled sense of human isolation, this passage -- like nearly every sentence in the play -- carries a special danger: that of local color for its own sake. Synge sails perilously close to that reef, but just when you feel about to overdose on stage-Irish quaintness, the plot takes a sudden, savage twist, the cartoon figures on stage become real, and you discover that this bucolic comedy about people who drink too much and worry about sheep eating the cabbage is telling you uncomfortable things about yourself.

The cast seems to be born for this material and no other, but that is deceptive. Its members have credits that range from Stratford (England, Connecticut and Ontario), the BBC and American networks, Broadway, off-Broadway and Hollywood. They are superb ensemble performers, but there are also some excellent individual performances. Two women stand out: Nuala Hayes as the Widow Quin and Roma Downey as Pegeen. Among the men, Macdara O Fatharta has the most complex assignment as Shawn, the rejected suitor, and he plays it superbly. Frank McCusker is excellent as Christy and David Kelly nearly steals the show as Old Mahon. This show's appeal is specialized but strong.

"The Playboy of the Western World" is a classic not only because its structure, style and techniques often echo those of classical Greek theater or because it uses words with such distinctive skill, but above all because Synge has found a microcosm, a focus of archetypal human reality in a small village on the west coast of Ireland around the turn of the century. This environment is intensely realized, but it embodies truths independent of time, space or culture.

You could call this play "Oedipus in County Mayo," for example; it is about a man who is set apart from society (and, ironically, above it) because he has murdered his father. It is about the struggle between the generations and very much about the war between the sexes. It focuses on the potential for tragedy that is implicit in the most hilarious situations, and the relations between myth and reality -- the difference between a thrilling tale of murder far away and the brute fact of murder in your own back yard. "There's a great gap," says Pegeen, the young heroine, "between a gallous {noble} story and a dirty deed," but each of her two terms describes the same thing.

"The Playboy of the Western World" is about society, how easily it is swayed by idle rumor and how quickly, viciously, it can change its mind, transforming yesterday's hero into today's scapegoat. It is particularly about the Irish peasants, with whom Synge had an intense love-hate relationship: about the grinding poverty and monotony of their lives, their rich imagination and lilting speech, their weakness for whiskey and gossip, the potential savagery that they (like any other group of humans) conceal beneath a genial exterior.

The Playboy of the Western World, by John Millington Synge. Directed by Vincent Dowling. Set, Noel Sheridan; costumes, Anne Cave and Rachel Pigot-Judd; lighting, Tony Wakefield. With David Carey, Miriam Coleman, John Cowley, Roma Downey, Margaret Fegan, Nuala Hayes, David Kelly, Miriam Kelly, Peadar Lamb, Frank McCusker, Maire Ni Ghrainne, Niall O'Brien, Macdara O Fatharta, Kevin Reynolds and Sarah Jane Scaife. At the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater through Oct. 21.