What a delight it is to be introduced to a comedy that has been almost forgotten for more than 70 years. The Mint Theater has been at the forefront when it comes to finding plays that have slipped through the cracks but are also deserving of a reappraisal as well as a resurrection. Lennox Robinson’s comedy “Is Life Worth Living?” had its premiere in London in 1933 and was received well enough on Broadway when it opened in 1935 to warrant three subsequent revivals during the ’30s. But there has been no prominent New York revival until the current one. Who else can we thank for this treasure but the Mint Theater, where it has been produced and directed with a gentle Gaelic-infused brio by Jonathan Bank?
What happens to the citizens in Inish, a small seaside village in Ireland, who are suddenly going a bit balmy soon after a theatrical repertory company is invited by the town elders to offer a season devoted to the plays of Ibsen, Chekhov, and Strindberg? Is the steady and unrelenting selection of dark, depressing, and devastating plays responsible for a sudden rash of attempted suicides, marital mayhem, and a general change for the worse in everyone’s behavior? This may be cause for alarm among the locals, but it is cause of our constant merriment in a play that revels in the transformative power of theater.
Although Robinson is a significant figure in Irish theater and best known for his play “The White-headed Boy,” he is not among the more frequently produced Irish playwrights in the U.S. He may have, however, been the inspiration for Israel Horovitz’s 1987 play “Year of the Duck,” in which the players in a Gloucester, Massachusetts, community theater begin to take on the characteristics of the characters they have been assigned in Ibsen’s “The Wild Duck.” While both the Horovitz and Robinson plays consider the effect that great dramatic literature has on culturally hungry and communally receptive provincials, “Is Life Worth Living?” has as its guiding lights two principal characters of grand pretensions with the grandest of designs.
Imposingly tall, dark, handsome Hector de la Mare (Kevin Kilner) and his suitably affected diva/wife, Constance Constantia (Jordon Baker), are determined, as the troupe’s principal stars, to raise the cultural consciousness of the villagers with a repertory specifically committed to “psychological and introspective drama,” and as Hector adds, “to revolutionize some person’s soul.” As things turn out, the Irish appear to have temperaments that are more receptive to a revolution than anyone might expect.
The action takes place in the private sitting-room in the Seaview Hotel (artfully designed by Susan Zeeman Rogers), where the wallpaper of huge cabbage roses makes its own conspicuously dramatic statement. There, Hector and Constance are graciously welcomed by its proprietors, John Twohig (Paul O’Brien), a crusty but accommodating man and his glamour-seeking wife, Annie (Bairbre Dowling). While we hear a lot about the distress beyond the walls of the hotel, there is plenty of emotional chaos within and as a direct result of the play’s being presented night after night.
The Twohigs’ grown son, Eddie (Graham Outerbridge), is fervently in love with a businesswoman Christine (Leah Curney), who isn’t inclined to be responsive until he is motivated to do something quite reckless. What do we make of Annie’s heretofore complacent spinster sister, Lizzie (Margaret Daly), when she suddenly believes that her life has unfolded as a tragedy? There are plenty of laughs as we see each one of this wonderful mix of characters get caught up in the deepening sense of depression caused by the plays.
Adorable is the only word to describe Jeremy Lawrence, who plays Peter Hurley, the meek and easily intimidated local member of the government who barely remembers his fling years ago with Lizzie. John Keating and Erin Moon are splendid as the hotel’s secretly romantically involved servants. Keating, whose hair recalls a brunette version of Harpo Marx, and uses his expressive face and eccentric body language to great effect, makes a gem out of the play’s funniest scene in which he auditions for Hector and Constance.
Kilner and Baker may not have used the Lunts as their role models for Hector and Constance, but their immodest, self-congratulatory theatricality is a joy to watch. By the time a reporter, nicely played by Grant Neale, figures out what is causing all the misery and chaos in the village, there is every reason to believe that a little doom and gloom was all that was ever needed to set things straight again. If the general mood of the play wavers between farce and high comedy, you probably won’t care once you realize that you’ve been smiling throughout. ***
“Is Life Worth Living?” through Sunday October 18, Mint Theater Company, 311, West 43rd Street. $55. www.minttheater.org.