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Is Life Worth Living?

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Jordan Baker and Kevin Kilner.
Photo by Richard Termine.

Few stage comedies would dare invoke the titles of heavier works such as Ibsen's An Enemy of the People and Tolstoy's The Power of Darkness as punch lines, and even fewer New York theatre companies would court laughs with them today. But Lennox Robinson's Is Life Worth Living? is one such play and the Mint Theater Company is one such company, and the results of their fusion in Jonathan Bank's new production are sparkling.

In fairness, Mint audiences are primed for this sort of thing; after all, the company produced The Power of Darkness just two years ago. But more than that, their steady of diet of forgotten or ignored classics has prepared them for Robinson's delightful deconstruction of the subconscious impact art can have on our everyday lives - for better or worse. The people in Lennox's Irish seaside town of Inish, who are anxious to prove they're as smart and as deep as big-city folk, are intimately connected to contemporary theatregoers (like those who frequent the Mint) who don't want to miss a facet of the works that brought us to where we are today.

Real-life audiences, however, have it better than those hard-working and hard-feeling people, as Robinson's play (which premiered in Dublin in 1933 under the title Drama at Inish) treats them to a subversively silly skewering of every pretention, actual or imagined, that Serious Artists tend to adopt. The greatest hope of Hector de la Mare (Kevin Kilner) and Constance Constantia, who've brought their touring repertory company (and their stylish all-black wardrobe) to Inish, is that through their plays "some middle-aged man, in all outward appearances respectable, will see himself stripped naked, the sham cloak of virtue torn from his shoulders, and he will stand exposed as the rotten sham he is" and that "women will see themselves vain, shallow, empty-headed, scheming for power, scheming for husbands, scheming for lovers."

It doesn't take long for that old canard about watching out for your wishes to prove brutally true. Exposed to these unrelenting plays, the heretofore innocent townspeople almost immediately dissolve into scandal, distrust, and dissatisfaction, with the respectable Seaview Hotel at the center of it all. The owner, John Twohig (Paul O'Brien), takes his wife (Bairbre Dowling) sharply to task for her bloated dress budget. John's sister and assistant, Lizzie (Margaret Daly), suddenly remembers all manners of romantic slights foisted upon her over the decades by the local T.D., Peter Hurley (Jeremy Lawrence), who can't recall committing a single misdeed. John's son, Eddie (Graham Outerbridge), has until now always accepted with good humor the lovely Christine Lambert (Leah Curney) declining his marriage proposals, but now is given to soul-corroding despair at the thought of her rejection.

The scenario is simple (perhaps even simplistic), the outcomes obvious, and the resolution inevitable. But given Robinson's airy yet airtight construction and knack for twisting the unexpected into whimsical ornamentation (the myriad ways various suicide pacts and murder plots implode will leave you chuckling for days afterwards), and director Bank's deceptively light touch through even the most shadowy happenings that plague the villagers, this plays as a fully evolved and realized story. A nearly equal blend of elation and sorrow - even if both could be a shade more robust - ensures that the production never sacrifices laughs because there's not enough suffocating tragedy on hand to wring them out. Only Susan Zeeman Rogers's set, which more closely resembles a nursery than the sitting room it's supposed to be, seems misjudged.

Kilner, who glowers and broods deliciously through his self-important role, and Baker, who piercingly envisions Constance as a wilting forever locked within her own tremulous talent, lead the very effective cast. Particularly strong are Outerbridge, who transitions between Eddie's normal and hypertheatrical anguish with a gloriously pronounced subtlety, and Daly, who's cathartically comic as she melts into her own fantastical romantic distress. (The two share a priceless blackout moment, in which they moan individually, yet together, about the wrongs they're barely enduring.) Lawrence, wide-eyed and daffy as the easily confused Peter, and Erin Moon, as the maid who's the first to succumb to the black magic of the stage, are also responsible for some of the evening's choicer tidbits.

But they're all as funny as they are for the same reason the play as a whole is: They tap into the deepest fears and uncertainties that everyone attending a play wants to hide as much as experience. Wanting to feel every sensation but not publicly evince the more personal or dangerous, is as human as it gets - and the outlet every work and artist, on some level, hopes to provide. That realization, which we so often recognize and either tamp down or ignore altogether, is what sets this play apart from our current brand of self-involved self-referential works such as The Drowsy Chaperone or [title of show]. Is Life Worth Living? may spend two hours joking about holding up a mirror that will reveal and perhaps even release your inner demons, but in the end it holds one up just the same.

Is Life Worth Living?
Through October 11
Mint Theatre, 311 West 43rd Street., between 8th and 9th Avenue
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