September 15, 2009

Hamlet famously uses a play to shame a shady king, but the antic Dane isn’t a patch on Hector de la Mare (Kevin Kilner) and Constance Constantia (Jordan Baker), a stage couple whose dramatic lucubrations force an entire Irish village to bare its soul. Their weapon of choice: the “psychological and introspective” works of exotic authors Chekhov and Ibsen, among others. And although the actors are pleased to catch the conscience of the townsfolk, they’re just as interested in their purses.

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. My older colleagues with longer memories might sniff at my ignorance, but I’d never heard of Robinson; now I can place him in the continuum of Irish drama that includes Wilde, Shaw and Synge. Like many an Emerald Isle playwright, Robinson pokes fun at his provincial countrymen and their small-town vices, but his touch is light and his love for them—and Continental masters—is genuine.

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.—David Cote