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2 D.C. plays put wit and warmth on the map, from Ireland to Israel

‘The Playboy of the Western World’ gets a dramatic updating, while ‘Home?’ details a Palestinian actress’s quest for a safe artistic haven

Jamil Joseph and Rebecca Ballinger in Solas Nua's production of “The Playboy of the Western World.” (Solas Nua)

“I’m here to seek refuge in Ireland!” declares Christopher, a young man with a highly dubious claim for asylum, in Solas Nua’s updated version of “The Playboy of the Western World.” If you’ve had any contact with this classic 1907 Irish satire, you’ll know instantly that this is not the play as its author, John Millington Synge, designed it.

For this Christopher — the young stranger made a local celebrity on his claim to be a killer — is now not an Irish lad but a Nigerian one. And the play, as reconceived by Nigerian dramatist Bisi Adigun and Irish colleague Roddy Doyle, widens its comic lens to encompass Irish attitudes on the immigration waves rolling onto the island’s shores.

The production by Solas Nua, a D.C. company that highlights Irish arts and culture, is the first for the play since its debut at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 2007. It’s a clever enough adaptation, engagingly directed at Atlas Performing Arts Center by Shanara Gabrielle and featuring Jamil Joseph as Christopher and Rebecca Ballinger as his love interest, Pegeen. Some adjustments are needed, though, in a plot with discomfiting optics: When, for instance, the dim townfolk turn on Christopher, a mob shows up with a rope. Um, not funny, and even more unfortunate given that another current occupant of Atlas’s complex on H Street NE is Mosaic Theater’s trilogy about the murder of Emmett Till.

Travelers from across the sea in search of safe harbor is a subject much on the minds of theater makers in these parts. On 14th Street NW, for example, another small D.C. company, Voices Festival Productions, is producing what it calls the “workshop premiere” of actress Hend Ayoub’s “Home?” — a monologue detailing Ayoub’s struggle as a Palestinian Israeli to find a welcoming country in which to perform.

“Home?,” staged in a newly renovated storefront space, the Corner at Whitman-Walker, reunites Ayoub with Carey Perloff, who directed her nearly three years ago to mesmerizing effect in Arena Stage’s Afghan play “A Thousand Splendid Suns.” They again prove to be a mutually catalyzing team.

The conceit may constitute standard operating procedure for autobiography in the theater world, as an actor’s coming-of-age story tends to follow well-trod paths, involving cycles of high hopes, auditions and rejections. But Ayoub overlays “Home?” (subtitled “Or a Palestinian Woman’s Pursuit of Life, Liberty and Happiness”) with an artistic paradox, one that gives the 80-minute performance piece a more poignant core.

To find the work that allows her to become someone else, she must persuade people to look past who she is on paper. Her identity documents stand in the way of an artistic livelihood. Born in Haifa and growing up in a city in which Jews and Arabs mixed, Ayoub slowly discovers a severely restricted Israeli theater scene and a distressingly intolerant society. Denied opportunity because of her Palestinian heritage, she moves to Egypt, where her Israeli passport throws up even more obstacles to securing acting jobs.

You can see via “Home?” why Ayoub — who eventually came to the United States and studied with New York acting guru Wynn Handman — stuck so ardently to her dream: In a bare, white-walled space, with Devin Kinch’s projections to provide some context, she herself projects a radiant presence. But this is not an ideological tract by any stretch. Effortlessly shifting from English to Hebrew to Arabic and back again, Ayoub offers herself as a living example of how letting the global air in helps us all to breathe more healthfully.

In “The Playboy of the Western World,” audiences gain access to a long-standing Irish tradition of playwrights with a yen for the dramatic shiv. The roots of the violent proclivities in Martin McDonagh’s scathing contemporary comedies can be traced to Synge’s work. On Broadway, for instance, McDonagh’s recent “Hangmen” revolved around misguided fan worship in a northern English pub for a legendary prison executioner.

“Playboy” is also set among worshipful characters in a pub, here rendered vividly in an Atlas black-box space by set designer Nadir Bey. The hapless neighborhood gangsters (Ian Armstrong, Ryan Tumulty, Matthew Pauli) size up Christopher as some smitten local girls (Rachel Lawhead, Danielle Gallo, Erin Denman) vie for his attention — all titillated by his announcement that he killed his father back in Nigeria with a kitchen implement.

This comedy of topsy-turvy morality is absolutely nonsensical, which is why the total belief conveyed by the ensemble goes a long way to making the evening work. Joseph is winning as the extraordinarily adaptable Christopher, and Ballinger invests Pegeen with a persuasively fierce sense of rebelliousness. Jessica Lefkow deserves plaudits, too, for her portrayal, at once addled and yet convincingly sensible, of the Widow Quin, who insists on her own right to be credited with murder.

I’d venture to say the details of Christopher’s purported crime, and the community’s reactions, could be elucidated with more satirical dexterity, as could the payoff that upends the town’s suppositions. Still, this spirited rerouting of an old Irish pathway makes for a diverting border crossing.

The Playboy of the Western World, adapted from John Millington Synge’s play by Bisi Adigun and Roddy Doyle. Directed by Shanara Gabrielle. Set, Nadir Bey; costumes, Danielle Preston; lighting, Sarah Tundermann; sound, Delaney Bray. With James Lacey, James J. Johnson. About 2 hours 20 minutes. Through Nov. 20 at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. solasnua.org.

Home? Or a Palestinian Woman’s Pursuit of Life, Liberty and Happiness Written and performed by Hend Ayoub. Directed Carey Perloff. Lighting and projections, Devin Kinch; sound, Alistair Edwards. About 80 minutes. Through Nov. 14 at the Corner at Whitman-Walker, 1701 14th St. NW. voicesfestivalproductions.com.

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