Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Is Life Worth Living?


By Lennox Robinson. Directed by Jonathan Bank. At the Mint Theater. (CLOSED)

What New York critic wouldn't appreciate the premise of this 1933 farce? A theatre producer in rural Ireland decides to give the locals a dose of serious, tragic drama from Checkhov, Strindberg, and Ibsen. The impressionable citizens of Inish proceed to embrace the tragic sensibility all too openly, leading to big-hearted imitation of broken-hearted characters. Critics praise Robinson for mocking small-town values and theatrical pretentiousness with equal affection. The major evaluative question then becomes how well the cast and director have realized Robinson's story and all its knowing backstage humor. Here opinions vary. Some critics (Backstage, NYTimes, Village Voice, NYPost) want more farce and less quaint romance, while others find the performances farcically overlarge (Variety) or uneven (TheatreMania, Nytheatre.com). But most of the reviews below contain some measure enthusiasm for the production as a whole.

Bloomberg A
(John Simon) Charm, most lacking in today’s theater, abounds in Lennox Robinson’s 1933 play, “Is Life Worth Living?” now joyously revived by New York’s dependable Mint Theater. Jonathan Bank’s deft directing and his cherishable cast render “Is Life Worth Living?” as the modest masterpiece it is. I greatly enjoyed Paul O’Brien’s John, Bairbre Dowling’s Annie, Graham Outerbridge’s Eddie, Leah Curney’s Christine, Kevin Kilner’s Hector and the rest in Susan Zeeman Rogers’s charming setting and Martha Hally’s delightful costumes. But the outstanding performances for me were Margaret Daly’s Lizzie, nursing a broken heart like a barfly her last drink at closing time; and Jordan Baker’s Constance, turning petty displeasures into grandly histrionic grievances. Even if you don’t consider life worth living, the play is well worth catching.

CurtainUp A
(Elyse Sommer) This latest offering from the Mint Theater —that intrepid excavator of buried theatrical gold— is a highlight of the current New York celebration of Irish theater (see links to other Festival shows we've reviewed below). Director Jonathan Bank has assembled an able and charming cast to give this gently endearing 1933 satire new life, and New York theater goers a two hour respite from cynical and tense times. It's fun but has something to say, and says it so that the author's fondness and respect for the characters is never in question ... Under Mr. Bank's direction, the actors exaggerate the comic aspects of their characters just enough, but never stoop to hammy actor and Irish village carricatures. The only exception in the latter category is John Keating. This terrifically funny actor, something of an Irish version of the Seinfeld series' Kramer, is allowed to take his double assignment as Michael the Inn's theatrically ambitious Boots and as Mr. Slattery, the nephew of a rich but stingy and all too alive aunt.

Time Out New York A
(David Cote) This sweet and witty revival of Lennox Robinson’s 1933 comedy "Is Life Worth Living?" again earns Jonathan Bank and the Mint Theater Company hosannas for bringing a lesser-known work to our attention ... Bank’s production includes a mildly metatheatrical coup: real-life spouses Kilner and Baker evince an easy rapport as Hector and Constance, whose artistic pretensions are leavened by their humble circumstances; they need this summer-stock gig in an Irish seaside resort, despite crude local tastes. But soon, their troupe’s heavy-duty repertoire of dark, serious plays fires up the moral imagination of the village, prompting an offstage spate of domestic violence, suicide pacts and existential pondering on life’s worthlessness. If Robinson intended satire, his rounded characters and these actors’ humane performances sidestep harshness; instead, it’s a smart, wry example of art irritating life.

Backstage A-
(Erik Haagensen) The invaluable Mint Theater Company's genial production of Lennox Robinson's 1933 comedy (originally titled "Drama at Inish") keeps a smile on your face for two hours. This loving look at the work of an important figure in Irish theater in the first half of the 20th century brims with shining talent and smartly executed craft ... director Jonathan Banks' finely calibrated direction brings each to the fore. Paul O'Brien is a commanding and sympathetic Twohig, making subtle comic hay out of the character's lack of introspection. As his wife, Bairbre Dowling is entrancing in her certitude that drama is just not for her. As their love-struck son, Graham Outerbridge descends convincingly into the kind of existential despair that belongs only to the inexperienced young. As the object of his affection, a modern girl from the city who is in town to do the local factory's accounting, Leah Curney is full of cool charm and bright confidence. Margaret Daly plays Twohig's spinster sister with a fine eye for her foibles and insecurities as well as her big heart, while Jeremy Lawrence is engagingly clueless as the hapless national assemblyman for the area who had no idea he jilted her back in the day. Real-life spouses Jordan Baker and Kevin Kilner are particularly believable as the long-married thespians who run the acting company and star in all the productions ... But as I left the theater still smiling, a nagging thought crept into my head that perhaps one slight miscalculation had been made. If Banks had just kicked everything up a notch, I might have been smiling less and laughing more. Pitched at the current level, "Is Life Worth Living?" can't escape just a hint of academia. But don't let that deter you from a visit. Robinson was a fine writer, and this "Life" is definitely worth living.

Talkin' Broadway A-
(Matthew Murray) 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 ... 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.

Nytheatre.com B+
(Martin Denton) 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 New Yorker B
(Unsigned) In Lennox Robinson’s sly and amusing 1933 play, first performed at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, a travelling troupe sets up shop in the seaside village of Inish and starts feeding the locals a steady diet of Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov. Pretty soon, the sunny summer has turned rainy and oppressive, young couples are making suicide pacts, and misunderstood souls are jumping off piers. Director Jonathan Bank and a fine company of actors play it thoroughly straight, infusing the satire with tenderness. The comedy loses a little steam at the start of the second act, as it self-consciously explains the central joke, but gathers itself for a rousing Irish reel of a finale, while endorsing the revolutionary power of theatre. Some in the audience may take a secret pleasure in Robinson’s gentle puncturing of the icons of early-twentieth-century drama.

The New York Times B
(Jason Zinoman) The Mint revived this rarely produced drama in 2007, and since its artistic director, Jonathan Bank, who stages this revival, has made a commitment to challenging and forgotten dramas, he appears to be having a little fun at his own expense. But not enough. Mr. Robinson lampoons the self-importance of the artists and the provincial audiences equally, and not without compassion, but at its heart, this is a farce (subtitle: “an exaggeration”). Instead of satirizing gleefully the conviction that great drama enlightens the mind, the cast is oddly restrained. Ms. Baker has a few moments of flamboyance, and Mr. Kilner, playing a man aiming to “revolutionize souls,” broods darkly in a wavering accent ... Confronting issues of culture’s role in society and the war between big-city snobbery and small-town values, the play remains relevant. But what once might have seemed like a Shavian poke in the eye (Mr. Robinson once worked as Shaw’s secretary), now comes off as a little romantic.

Lighting & Sound America B
(David Barbour) For most of the first act, Is Life Worth Living? looks to be one of the Mint's most golden finds. But the piece wobbles in the second act; Robinson doesn't so much develop his theme as repeat it, and the fun thins out a little. I also can't help feeling that the climactic scene, in which Hector and Constance are dispatched, should be funnier and more touching. I could also do without the Irish reel the entire cast dances at the finale; the play has a perfectly good curtain line and needs no such folkloric touches. But, once again, the Mint has found a perfectly playable piece from the past, serving it up in a charming production.

Theatermania B-
(Andy Propst) Director Jonathan Bank has given Living an appropriately breezy staging but has elicited a surprisingly divergent array of performances from the company. As Hector and Constance, the unwitting forces of change in this Irish hamlet, both Kilner and Baker seem to relish the opportunity to play hams of a theatrical era long-past ... While Daly's portrayal of the fussily scattered Lizzie and Outerbridge's sensitive rendering of Eddie are delightful, the rest of the cast can be curiously uneven. For example, after an almost wooden initial appearance as Annie, Dowling delivers a charmingly sprightly performance during her later scenes. In supporting roles, Erin Moon and John Keating find nuance and humanity in the stereotypically written characters of servants at the hotel, but Jeremy Lawrence, as a doddering elected official, and Grant Neale, as an ambitious reporter who descends on the town to investigate a rash of aberrant behavior among the Inish populace, hew pretty closely to clich├ęs in their work. Scenic designer Susan Zeeman Rogers provides the cheerful (and somewhat stylized) floral sitting room in which the action unfolds and Jeff Nellis' lighting design manages to get one of the biggest laughs in this amiable play about the sometimes unexpected power of theater to transform its audiences.

Variety B-
(Marilyn Stasio) Those enterprising archeologists at the Mint Theater have unearthed yet another forgotten gem in "Is Life Worth Living?" an amiable, if prickly 1933 comedy by Lennox Robinson that mocks a little Irish village for its provincial cultural tastes, while loving the impressionable villagers half to death for their endearing innocence. Familiar stalwarts from the core ensemble company engage the character comedy with knowing wit, while carefully stepping around the black hole that the two miscast leads have torn out of Helmer (and Mint a.d.) Jonathan Bank's otherwise presentable production.

Village Voice C+
(Michael Feingold) To keep from seeming overly mechanical, the script's shallowness needs to be infused with warm, vigorous comic playing; the multiple facets conveyed by the performances would then conceal the flat edges of the mechanism. Unluckily, Jonathan Bank, directing the Mint's revival, seems to have imposed a ceiling of caution on his cast, as if nervous that the comedy might get out of hand and turn the evening into a brogue-ridden Saturday Night Live. He needn't have worried, given that his cast consists mainly of skilled naturalistic actors rather than comedians. As a result, the gloom that spreads over the Twohig household often seems merely damp instead of funny, though the laughs lying in wait inside the text get triggered with regularity. Baker, elegantly playing the rep company's diva just this side of affectation, scoops them up most efficiently. O'Brien's strongly focused ire, and Graham Outerbridge's nicely nuanced woe as his suddenly suicidal son, stay within realism's bounds, but do much to drive away the damp.

New York Post D
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) It's rare to witness so stunning an act of self-sabotage: Bank found a lovely gem from 1933 by a now-forgotten playwright named Lennox Robinson, then proceeded to obliterate its humor, liveliness and gentle subversion ... something vital is missing in this listless production -- Bank somehow overlooked the helpful subtitle Robinson gave his play: "an exaggeration." It's as if nobody on stage had any inkling this is supposed to be funny. Things are even worse when the characters aren't speaking: The actors just stand there, as stiff and blank as logs. In the chewy roles of touring thespians Hector de la Mare and his wife, Constance Constantia, Kevin Kilner and Jordan Baker barely register. They don't need to imitate Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi, the feisty divas in "Kiss Me, Kate," but we could expect at least a bit of zest. Kilner, in particular, speaks in a distractingly indeterminate accent, as if Hector hailed from Cork-on-the-Volga.

Bloomberg A 13; CurtainUp A 13; Time Out New York A 13; Backstage A- 12; Talkin' Broadway A- 12; Nytheatre.com B+ 11; The New Yorker B 10: New York Times B 10; Lighting & Sound America B 10; Theatre Mania B- 9; Variety B- 9; Village Voice C+ 8; NYPost D 4. TOTAL: 134/13 = 10.31 (B)

1 comment:

Karl Miller said...

ANCILLARY DISCUSSION QUESTION: Okay, I haven't seen the play, but after reading the reviews for CoM, I have to wonder: what would Martin McDonagh have done with the same premise? Is it my cynical bias, or would he not have the local bumpkins butchering the famous themes as they butcher each other? Pointless speculation, maybe. Just curious.