Like the victims in some sort of yesteryear Stephen King novel, the denizens of a small Irish seaside town suddenly turn on one another — and themselves — in Lennox Robinson’s Is Life Worth Living?, an endearing 1930s comedy that’s being revived to smile-inducing effect at the Mint Theatre Company.
It’s not the supernatural or occult that causes the changes in the characters in Robinson’s play, but rather the arrival of a repertory company that’s offering some serious theater to the locals. Hector de la Mare (Kevin Kilner) and his wife Constance Constantia (Jordan Baker) specialize in bringing works by Chekhov, Ibsen and Strindberg to the stage because, as Hector imperiously announces, “They may revolutionise some person’s soul!”
Indeed, nightly productions of A Doll’s House and Power of Darkness do stir the citizenry of Inish. John Twohig (Paul O’Brien), the good-natured soul who runs the hotel where Hector and Constance are staying, suddenly starts berating his wife Annie (Bairbre Dowling) over her profligate spending; their generally cheery and doe-eyed son Eddie (Graham Outerbridge) — madly in love with the sensible Christine (Leah Curney) — develops a morbid streak and even poses and acts on the nihilistic question of the play’s title; and John’s spinster sister Lizzie (Margaret Daly) unexpectedly reveals the “tragic” secrets of her past. It’s merry stuff that’s peppered with knowing references to plays that are now considered classics, but for the time, were scandalous commentaries about bourgeois society.
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. With each swooping movement or overly calculated gesture, Baker seems to simultaneously channel — to terrific effect — Lynn Redgrave and Marian Seldes. Kilner’s solidly amusing work often seems to owe as much to Maurice Evans (circa his Bewitched days) as Robert De Niro (in his later, more comic, turns).
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 clichés 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.