Friday, October 30, 2009

Theater Review: “Is Life Worth Living?”, by Lennox Robinson

A few weeks ago, I made a point of looking up a New York City theater troupe that, over the last few years, has received respectful but not overwhelming attention in the local press for such past productions as Susan and God, by Rachel Crothers; The Glass Cage, by J.B. Priestley; and The Fifth Column, by Ernest Hemingway. The specialty of the Mint Theater Company—unearthing “worthwhile plays from the past that have been lost or neglected”—is one that I think is sorely needed.

The preview performance I saw, of Is Life Worth Living?, met all of my expectations. This comedy from the 1930s, which closed a week and a half ago after a run of several weeks, is a wry valentine to the impossible world of theater in the manner of Moss Hart’s Light Up the Sky and the George S. Kaufman-Edna Ferber dramedy, The Royal Family (now itself being revived on Broadway).

Playwright Lennox Robinson (1886-1958) was, early in the last century, both a constant supplier of new product for the Abbey Theatre and a director of the legendary Dublin dramatic venue. Until the 1960s, I learned from the post-show “talk-back” discussion, the only other show revived more often at the Abbey than Robinson’s The Whiteheaded Boy was John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World.

It’s a different story nowadays: Robinson has almost completely fallen off the critical radar. In my local county library system—a pretty fair-sized suburban collection—only a couple of Robinson’s plays are listed. Surprisingly, in the New York Public Library, what few copies exist of his many plays are in archives rather than in general circulation.

Maybe the Mint Theater Company’s adept production will renew interest in Robinson. They treated his play with no attempt to update it or shift it to another time and place, which seems to be the theatrical fashion these days (see The Roundabout Theatre’s After Miss Julie, a “revisal” of the misogynistic August Strindberg drama that I’ll be reviewing in the not-too-distant feature).

Robinson’s droll eye focused on the inhabitants of the Irish seaside town of Inish, whose lives are turned upside down by a visiting theatrical troupe. John, the owner of the Seaview Hotel, describes his fellow residents as “quiet, decent people,” and that they are, but they are also innocent enough to have their heads turned completely by the likes of Chekhov, Strindberg and Ibsen.

Throughout, a balance is exquisitely maintained between the townspeople and the husband-and-wife acting team of Hector de la Mare and wife Constance Constantia.

Robinson affectionately contrasts the bohemianism of Hector and Constance (Hector continues to mount plays bigger on critical acclaim than box-office appeal, he notes, because “they may revolutionize some person’s soul”), and the provincialism of the residents, who find that plays written abroad years ago unexpectedly open windows into their own lives in their small corner of the Emerald Isle. Before long, the middle-class residents are doing such uncharacteristic things as bursting into tears over a long-held secret, or, in one politician’s case, defying party orthodoxy because of the environmental theme of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People.

The cast acquitted themselves well, particularly Paul O’Brien as the genial hotel owner who welcomes the acting troupe initially as a way to boost tourism to his town and hotel, only to get much more than he bargained for; Bairbre Dowling as his wife, whose fervent interest in clothes becomes a comic bone of contention as the play progresses; and Jeremy Lawrence, picked for the Dail (the principal chamber of the Irish Parliament) for his milquetoast ways, only to change because of Ibsen’s example.

In the talk-back discussion, Ms. Dowling’s father, Vincent Dowling, a lifetime associate director and former artistic director of the Abbey, recalled how, as a youth, he had met Robinson, who could be “slightly sardonic, but in a lovely way.” For instance, after listening to a pompous artistic director of the 1950s drone on and on at an anniversary celebration for the theater, Robinson, asked for a few remarks of his own immediately afterward, began: “And now, for a few facts…”

Is Life Worth Living? proved well worth seeing. I intend to keep an eye out for future productions to see if the Mint Theater Company can duplicate its impressive lead-off this season. Its space at 311 West 43rd Street in New York might be small, but, as Spencer Tracy remarked of Katharine Hepburn in Pat and Mike: “What’s there is ‘cherce.’”

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