`THE Playboy of the Western World,'' an Irish classic, is literally a riot of a play. It hasn't caused riots here at Kennedy Center, where a poignantly funny Abbey Theatre production runs through Oct. 21, prior to a national tour. But surely enough they rioted back in 1907, when it opened at the fledgling Abbey Theatre, founded by Lady Augusta Gregory, William Butler Yeats, and Edward Martyn. Dublin audiences found John Millington Synge's ``Playboy,'' written in ``translated Gaelic,'' insulting and vulgar. Actors were hissed off the stage, and on the third night Lady Gregory had riotous members of the audience arrested by police.
When ``Playboy'' came to the states in 1911, it caused a riot in Manhattan, where enraged audiences doused the actors with pepper. That was before the ``Playboy'' obscenity trial during its Philadelphia run, in which bristling Irish-Americans testified against it.
Now what is there about a play written by an Irish poet just after the turn of the century, a play about country people in a remote fishing village, that would goad both Irish and American audiences to rioting over the words?
The production's director, Vincent Dowling, sets the 1907 scene: ``The Irish Nationalists, you see, were fighting to create a new image for Ireland... The people were living in Ireland on rosy views of nationalism, very much needed, for it was just before that incredibly poetic and heroic 1916 revolution, full of sentimental songs and sentimental views of ourselves. ... They were saying, `Here's this man [Synge] coming along and showing our people as foolish people, making a hero out of a man [the playboy] who's killed his father - as if that's all the play is about. So we had a nationalist attack on the Abbey, to put it out of business.''
Dowling says the American riot started because the Irish Nationalist movement had become very strong here by the time the production came stateside. ``[Teddy] Roosevelt came to sit with Lady Gregory in the audience, to help,'' says Dowling. ``To his credit, he said he was very glad he'd stood for the principle of free speech.''
``Even funnier,'' he continues, was what happened in Philadelphia. ``In those days there were these characters known as American Gaels - you know, professional Irishmen,'' he says with a curl of the lip. They were the witnesses in this obscenity charge against the Abbey Players. The charge revolved around a scene where a tavern-keeper leaves his daughter all alone, tending the place in the evening, when a fleeing stranger - the playboy - seeks refuge.
Dowling says the court record indicates the judge asked one witness ` ``Did you see anything immoral on the stage?' This is the night they're left alone - that's how the act ends. And the American Gael replies, `No, your Honor, but who knows what happened when the curtain came down?' And at that point the judge threw the case out.''
The play's title does not have the ``Don Juan'' meaning in the native Gaelic-speaking West of Ireland that Americans often assume. In the native Gaelic, which gave such flavor to the Irish-English Synge and others wrote, a playboy was an athlete, and the ``western world'' was anything beyond their town.
Dowling, former artistic director of the Abbey, has directed productions of ``Playboy'' at the Abbey's Dublin theater, all over Ireland, and abroad in places from Hong Kong to Moscow to Australia. He has also won an Emmy Award for the 1983 version he directed for PBS. Now on the Abbey's 15-city American tour, he and the Irish actors in this production will take ``Playboy'' from Tuscon, Ariz., to Ann Arbor, Mich., and wind up in Boston on Dec. 2.
But the production will not be going to Broadway, Dowling says. ``My belief is that you can go to New York and, for no good reason, can be wiped out, because one person [a New York Times drama critic] doesn't like it, rightly or wrongly.
What is it that makes an 83-year-old Irish play a ``now'' experience in regional and college theaters? Dowling is convinced it is the grip of the play's beautiful language, written at the beginning of a new age of Irish expression, comparable to the language of Shakespeare's plays.
Synge himself wrote in 1907, that in ``Playboy,'' ``I have used one or two words only that I have not heard among the country people of Ireland. ... ``In Ireland, for a few years more ... we have a popular imagination that is fiery and magnificent and tender. So that those of us who wish to write start with a chance that is not given to writers in places where the springtime of the local life has been forgotten, and the harvest is a memory only, and the staw has been turned into bricks.''
And yet those words, so fresh to the ear, are sometimes the sticking point for audiences unfamiliar with the language of the play - words like ``streeleen'' (chatter) and ``loy'' (a narrow, sharp instrument). Dowling advises audiences to put the sound of the words aside, and listen for the meaning. ``You don't go a symphony and ask, `What does this note mean?''' he says. ``You don't go to a dance and say, `What does that step mean?' And you don't look at a painting and say, `What does that blue dot mean?' If you do that, you lose it. When you go to foreign theater, just give yourself to it.''
The reward is in hearing magical lines like those of Cristy in ``Playboy'': ``I was lonesome all times, and born lonesome, I'm thinking, as the moon of dawn.'' Or earlier, ``It's a long story; you'd be destroyed listening.'' And a character named Mahon says, ``Look at the mule he has, kicking the stars.''
The director is a silver-haired man with sky-blue eyes and the changeable face of an actor. We are sitting at tea-time in the Roof Terrace restaurant at Kennedy Center. As we've been talking, the sky over the Potomac River outside has darkened to a silver gray like Irish light. Himself, who has a diverting series of anecdotes in his denim jacket, makes a sharp right turn to talk about the tradition of Abbey acting.
``At it's best, of course, it's ensemble. And, of course, it's `the play's the thing.' It is the epitome of what Shakespeare asks of the players in `Hamlet.' In its truest and simplest terms, it is the maximum of the interior life of each character with a minimum of the exterior, the minimum of movement, of gesture. ... It's finding what the minimum is to suit the word to the gesture and the gesture to the word.''
Dr. Dowling (as he's listed in his bio) is an honorary associate director of the Abbey as well as its associate producing director in North America. For nine years the director of the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival, he has also directed widely for regional theaters and had visiting professorships at several colleges.
He now makes his home in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, where he is founder of the miniature Theater of Chester. He and his Irish-born wife (raised in Malibu and Hollywood) live with four daughters by a former marriage, and have a stepson at the University of Massachusetts.
He says he's looking forward to the Boston tour stop. Does he expect a riot? ``Wouldn't that be nice!'' says Dowling.