September 19, 2009

"Is Life Worth Living?" Worth Seeing?

I like to fancy myself a student of the theater. But I confess I had no idea who Lennox Robinson was until my husband K and I went to see the Mint Theater’s new revival of Robinson’s comedy Is Life Worth Living?

The Mint is an Eden for people like me (you know, the kind who go home after a show and obsessively Goggle everything about it).  For the Mint dedicates itself to producing unknown or neglected plays by major writers and provides informative information in its Playbills and even books in its lobby so that curious theatergoers can learn more about them—a practice I wish more theaters would adapt. Robinson, it turns out, is the perfect Mint guy.

A protégé of William Butler Yeats, a personal secretary to George Bernard Shaw, a disciple of Harley Granville-Barker, he was one of the major figures in Irish theater during the first half of the last century.  Over a 50-year career, Robinson managed Dublin’s famed Abbey Theatre, wrote more than 30 plays (in addition to radio dramas, poetry, short stories and an historical novel) and lead the Drama League, which celebrated trailblazing work by August Strindberg, Eugene O’Neill and Robinson’s favorite, Henrik Ibsen.

Is Life Worth Living? is Robinson’s satirical tribute to the theater world he loved throughout his life (and beyond; he bequeathed his royalties to a fund for “playwrights, producers, stage managers and stage musicians, any other servant of the theater,” according to the Playbill) and to the modern plays he championed.  This comedy, which played just 12 performances when it opened on Broadway in 1933, chronicles the events that occur when a theater troupe that specializes in tragedies comes to a traditional Irish seaside village.  It doesn’t violate my no-spoilers rule to say that mayhem ensues.

The entire cast—although uneven—gets into the spirit of the zaniness. Real-life spouses Kevin Kilner and Jordan Baker put their personal chemistry to good use as the vainglorious actor-manager and the flamboyant leading lady who is also his wife (click here to read a piece about Kilner and Baker). But the standouts for me were John Keating and Erin Moon, so seriously funny as the servants at the hotel where the troupe stays that I started smiling the moment either of them walked onstage and missed them when they were off. 

The play is simultaneously serious (Robinson believes that theater really can change people’s lives) and silly (he subtitles his play “an exaggeration,” a euphemism for farce—there is only one door in Susan Zeeman Rogers’ pretty, albeit cramped, set but it is constantly being flung open and slammed shut).
Costume designer Martha Hally dresses the 12-member cast beautifully despite what is clearly a limited budget, while lighting designer Jeff Nellis shows them all off to great effect.

 Robinson has a good time making his case that even lovers of serious drama need to make room for the uplift that entertaining comedy can offer. Much of the play’s merriment stems from his amiable jabs at such works as A Doll’s House, Dance of Death and Enemy of the People and most people who fancy themselves students of the theater will get a kick out of identifying the references.  

I wasn’t as blown away by the show as I thought I would be but I did enjoy the gentle breeze of its good cheer.  “That was sweet,” K said as we walked around the corner to the West Bank Cafe for a light supper after the show. Sweet seems exactly the right word and if you, like most of the critics, have a sweet tooth for backstage plays, then you just might eat this one right up.

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