Silly Antics Rule Off-Broadway Pair

PLAYBOY OF THE WEST INDIES. Drama by Mustapha Matura. Directed by Gerald Gutirrez. At the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center, until July 25.

WILD MENI.Comedy by Peter Burns, Mark Nutter, Rob Riley, Tom Wolfe, and Jim Corti. At the Westside Theatre indefinitely.

IT'S hard to fathom why playwright Mustapha Matura thought it was necessary to update and transport the setting of J.M. Synge's classic play "Playboy of the Western World" from turn-of-the-century Ireland to an island in Trinidad in 1950.

The Caribbean patois is no more comprehensible to contemporary audiences than the Irish brogue; in fact, the Playbill comes equipped with a handy glossary. And the setting is just as removed and exotic, as it has to be for the unlikely events in the play to have any credibility.

As in the Synge original, "Playboy of the West Indies" concerns a weather-beaten young man named Ken who shocks everyone by announcing that he is on the run from having beaten his father to death. Rather than turning him in, the inhabitants of the fishing village, particularly a young female shopkeeper, treat him like a hero. Later, when it turns out the father is not dead after all, they turn on the young man and he learns about the fickle nature of fame.

The play, in both incarnations, is a sharp and ironic commentary on human nature, but Matura's version, as directed by Gerald Gutierrez, broadens the humor and coarsens the characters. Most of the laughs in this production spring less from the social satire than from the schtick that accompanies it. One scene, in which some teenage girls come to see the "playboy" for themselves and compete with each other for his affections, is particularly egregious. The scene in which Ken attempts to finish the job on his father is also played too baldly for laughs, reducing its shock value.

And yet the adaptation is not without its charms, if only because of its relaxed Caribbean setting, beautifully designed by John Lee Beatty and lit by James F. Ingalls. The two leads, Victor Love and Lorraine Toussaint, bring a depth and subtlety to their performances that the rest of the production lacks; their courtship is charming and believable. At the end, when Toussaint screams in anguish at the loss of her playboy, we are reminded that this play is actually about something.

IF you think that you will be able to recover from the sight of George Wendt in a sarong, then "Wild Men!" is the play for you.

Wendt, of course, has for the last 11 years played the lovable Norm on the hit television series "Cheers." He has not attempted an artistic stretch in his first role since that show's finale. He again plays a regular guy, in this case one of a group of men who are on an outing to discover their "wild men" within. Or their fathers. Or something.

This show, a spoof of Robert Bly's "Iron John" and the men's movement it helped popularize, was developed by a group of Chicago performers who are graduates of improvisational-comedy troupes. It has the feel of an extended sketch that was made up on the spot. Billed as "A Musical ... Sort Of," it also includes numerous songs, such as `Ooh, That's Hot," in which the men endure a sweat lodge purification ritual.

Two of the five performers, Peter Burns and Rob Riley, also collaborated in the writing, and Riley directed. They all seemed to be having a lot of fun, and some of that fun translated to the audience, who appeared to enjoy the low comedy and the high antics. Wendt proved that he can bring his easy-going charm and common-man persona, along with his deadpan comic delivery, to the stage. But after years of watching him perform in one of the most sophisticated comedies on television, it's a shame to see him reduced to sophomoric silliness.

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