Is Life Worth Living?
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 10, 2009
Is Life Worth Living? is billed not as a play or a farce, but as "an exaggeration"; this is exactly right. Written by Lennox Robinson (the Irishman who ran the Abbey Theatre for many years) in 1933, this skillful comedy imagines what might happen if a troupe of Very Serious Actors brought their repertory of Ibsen and Strindberg and Chekhov to a remote Irish town whose usual entertainments are circuses and low comedies. To say that the theatre folk manage to turn the townsfolk upside down is something of an understatement. I am loathe to give too much away here, so let's just say that the artist's dream of transforming the lives of an audience is realized here, vividly and beyond anyone's wildest imaginings.
The actors in question are Hector De La Mare and Constance Constantia, a married couple at the head of a wandering troupe whose fortunes, one gathers, are ebbing; they feel patterned on the Lunts except the Lunts really came later (perhaps they patterned themselves on this couple?). As the play's subtitle foretells, they are exaggerations of the Theatre Person as Dedicated Artiste, or more accurately, of what we who do not tread the boards imagine such people to be like: glamorous, worldly, smart, and entirely self-absorbed.
The ordinary mortals with whom they come in contact are more like us. There's John, a father who is loving though a bit blustery and a bit too enamored with drink, and Annie, a mother who is superficially flighty and social-minded though, we discover, grounded and wise. Their son, Eddie, thinks himself too good for his dad's profession (running a hotel, the one where Hector and Constance are staying) but not good enough for the lively young woman from Dublin, Christine, on whom he has a mad crush. There's also John's sister, Lizzie, who is convinced that she runs the hotel (but she doesn't, for she is very dithery), and the servant, Helena, who actually sort of does run the place; and there's another servant, strapping young Michael, who wants to go on the stage, and John's longtime pal Peter Hurley, a simpering public official. Near the end we meet Tom Mooney, local policeman, who is the most level-headed person in sight, and also John Hegarty, a reporter from Dublin who serves importantly as catalyst to bring the play to its fun climax and conclusion.
Is Life Worth Living?, whose title completely belies its sly comic perspective, pokes fun at the foibles of simple people and at the joys and excesses of the world of theatre. I think my favorite exchange in the play is this one
LIZZIE. What is on tonight?
CONSTANCE. The Powers of Darkness again.
LIZZIE. Oh, yes, that�s where they murder the baby in the cellar. I thought that was a very good one.
which manages to twit serious drama and public taste in a single deft swipe (and constitutes an in-joke for the Mint Theater faithful to boot, who will remember that the company presented this particular Tolstoy drama just two seasons ago).
Jonathan Bank directs the production with his trademark evenhandedness, letting it stand on its own for us to see (recall that the Mint's artistic vision is to spotlight less familiar deserving work from our not-so-recent past, and to do so with the degree of faithfulness and simplicity that Bank employs here is to do the work a great service). The most delightful performances come from Bairbre Dowling as Annie and Paul O'Brien as John, and, in smaller roles, John Keating as Michael and John O'Creagh as Mooney, all of whom thoroughly inhabit their characters with vigor and charm. Kevin Kilner and Jordan Baker are somewhat disappointing as the visiting actors, not quite summoning the degree of larger-than-life artifice that these two figures seem to require; Kilner seems to have a lot of trouble sustaining his Irish accent as well, which is a bit of a distraction. The set by Susan Zeeman Rogers is lovely to look at and entirely serviceable, as are costumes by Martha Hally.
This is, in sum, an altogether fun diversion with some cogent ideas about the nature of art thrown in. Robinson's ending for the piece doesn't feel quite satisfactory to me—but at the same time it makes the play joltingly timely in this era of seemingly endless culture wars in which we now seem to live.