Tuesday, February 16, 2010

“Is Life Worth Living?” offers the best kind of comedy: self-deprecating, ridiculous and very Irish

Upon taking their seats for “Is Life Worth Living?” in the tiny off-Broadway theatre hosting the Mint Theater Company, audiences immediately know what they’re in for. Not a corner, shadow or dark color can be found on stage; the reception of the Seaview Hotel is entirely round, with flowery, cutesy decorations, bright wall paper and all-white furniture. Clearly, these ultra-pleasant people know how to smother any trace of conflict, mystery or depth in their perfect little Irish town.

Fortunately for them, this missing complexity is brought to them in the form of two concerned and ambitious actors. Constance Constantia (Jordan Baker) and her husband Hector de la Mare (Kevin Kilner) expose the dark underbelly of these cozy townsfolk.

Lennox Robinson's play starts with lots of light-hearted banter as we get to know the characters. Things get more gripping when Constance and Hector practice for the people at the hotel. The actors get exactly what they were hoping for—an intense reaction from their audience—when Helena, the maid (played by Erin Moon), walks in and snaps. It all goes downhill from there: the little town gets swept away by Chekhov and Ibsen’s great (foreign) works of art. The stormy weather and dark room in beginning of Act One, Scene Two set the tone for the turn of events.

After the acting couple celebrates their profits from this little town’s ripeness for tragedy, they hear some striking news: one of their plays made a boy in the town suicidal. Funnily enough, he ends up only bruised and melancholy. Everyone on stage wails and charges the theater as a bad influence; meanwhile, the audience laughs over how the townsfolk unconsciously imitate what they see on stage.

Blaming all their misfortunes on their new exposure to art, the characters retain their surprising hilarity for the entirety of the two-hour production. These skillful actors discern the subtle line between the sober moments and the farcical comedy.

For example, when the hotel owner, John Twohig (played by Paul O’Brien), gets drunk and angry about the bills his wife racked up, the witnesses scramble to declare: it’s “A Doll’s House” reversed! Only after the embarrassing bystanders leave, John’s wife Annie (Bairbre Dowling) regally rises to her full height, confronting him physically and then verbally. Her husband repents then—he just wants moderation. Annie blames everyone’s high-strung emotions on taking the plays too seriously.

Next we see the Twohigs’ son Eddie (Graham Outerbridge) is now completely corrupted: dark, brooding, even rude. Whereas his speech before concerned his hopes for the future, now he speaks only of plays. He proclaims, “One learns through suffering.” His unrequited love for Christine (Leah Curney) is the subject of his discourse. In contrast, she argues that there are lovely things in the world, too: children, flowers, and the sea. She urges “stop realizing; be nice, Eddie.” Soon after this the title of the play is revealed in Act One’s climax as Eddie desperately cries, “religion and common sense be hanged: is life worth living?”

The town used to have just plain good-hearted people. However, ever since the plays started opening their minds, one outsider noticed that the townsfolk began to have a “strange, suspicious attitude—that they aren’t what they seem to be. They have dark pasts and darker futures! Two years ago, they were just nice.” To this, melodramatic Lizzie’s effable response is, “They’re marvelous plays—but it is hard to sleep afterwards.”

Even the government fell under the subversive effect: local T.D. Peter Hurley (Jeremy Lawrence) got kicked out of Parliament. The poor, predictable conformist was muddled by another Parliament official who “gave all these facts and figures” to reveal the inadequate quality of life for the Irish people. Hurley then “made a mistake” in voting against the corruption of his Party. “It was that play—Enemy of the People!” he exclaimed in his defense. Wretched, he and John lament how, “These plays put ideas into our heads…”

Jeremy Lawrence was one of the standout performers in the Mint’s production, along with Margaret Daly and Jordan Baker. Lawrence had the perfect physical interpretation of his character: a sniveling, oblivious, simple-minded politician. Daly illustrated the depth of her provincial character’s narcissism with hilarious sparks of hysteria and drama at totally unexpected moments. Baker, an actress playing an actress, deftly conveys the autobiographical touch Lennox Robinson gave to Constance as well as her husband.

The ending is ambiguous in a way—it doesn’t shove the moral down the audience’s throat, but rather encourages them to contemplate on their own. While Hector insists that he and Constance did accomplish their great mission of “lifting the stone to reveal the worms,” ultimately the circus comes to replace art and truth. Taken on a surface level, one may get the impression that mindless entertainment always trumps art. A woman in audience, during our talkback, commented: “The anti-intellectual quality in the end was surprising.” On the other hand, director Jonathan Bank observed, “This play is remarkably balanced. Lennox Robinson gave Helena the last word, and what she said was, ‘I’m glad I saw that play and my secret was uncovered.’”

“Is Life Worth Living?” must not be restricted to the labels of period piece or Irish play—though there are plenty of inside jokes. In fact, this play is a portrayal of all humanity: it shows the benefits of allowing yourself to be inspired by your environment, to empathize with others’ stories, and to explore life’s challenges instead of choosing ignorant bliss. As Bank confessed, “Sunshine is more appealing than rain; circus music is overpowering in delight. It’s inevitable.” With this assumption in mind, one may worry that people will always flock to entertainment and happy endings instead of challenging, evocative works of art. But the truth is the characters would’ve been stagnant—they never would’ve won the love or achievement they truly wanted—without these art-compelled crises of conscience.