THE PLAY'S the thing, but the playbill has its own charms. In a recent spurt of theatergoing, I couldn't help noticing these things:

J. M. Synge's "The Playboy of the Western World" draws heavily on the poetic dialect of the west coast of Ireland; as an aid to prosaic American ears, the Abbey Theatre production at the Kennedy Center included a glossary in its program. The first word was "ass." The definition was "donkey." Glad they cleared that up. (It also had a variety of words for "beat," "beating" and "beaten," which may explain why the hero allegedly murdered his father.)

In the same playbill, a quiz for "culture vultures" asked what Giuseppe Verdi, Vaclav Havel, Ignace Paderewski and Ronald Reagan have in common. The answer -- that all were married to a woman named Nancy -- had me muttering "Nancy Verdi? Nancy Havel?" throughout an otherwise lovely production. Unbeknownst (that's defined as "secretly" in the "Playboy" glossary) to me, 25 pages beforehand the editors had confessed to a typo in the answer key. (Yep, all were politicians.) It's hard to decipher "poteen," "straleen" and "supeen" when you've got "Nancy Paderewski" ringing in your ears.

Although also in the Kennedy Center, "Shogun" came with its own program and its own amusement. Reading the elaborate but disjunctive plot synopsis beforehand, I understood why the befuddled hero's songs asked more questions than the "Star-Spangled Banner." Since I saw the operatic show late in its run, I also got to figure out how many of the "musical moments," as the scenes were listed, were performed in full and how many had been trimmed to truly momentary length.

Over at the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger, the "Richard III" playbill dispenses with giving a summary of what happens for one of what's already happened. It's a good rundown on the War of the Roses (the one without Kathleen Turner or Michael Douglas), and a reminder that those early royal relatives are more Manson Family than Brady Bunch. The cast list also groups the dramatis personae helpfully into the Houses of York and Lancaster (not to mention Woodvilles and Tudors), but really all you need to know is Stacy Keach -- the guy with the hump? -- he hates everybody.