Mired in the gloom of our own time, we tend to forget the extent to which every time is the worst of times. We think of the great playwrights who shaped modernism—Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov—as heroes and geniuses, in whose work we’ve learned to see the bright as well as the dark patches. In that context, Lennox Robinson’s Is Life Worth Living? (1933), currently getting its first New York revival at the Mint Theater, is a startling and salutary reminder that the beloved masters of modern drama were once commonly thought of as unrelievedly morbid spreaders of gloom and negativity about human life. We’ve even learned to see past that view with Beckett, whose outlook is surely far darker than that of his great predecessors; probably in due course, some of our contemporary Kanes and McDonaghs, whose view now seems unrelievedly bleak, will be found to have a brighter side to their vision, if indeed their works don’t simply vanish into the negative space they create.
One wonders what Robinson (1886–1958) would make of our contemporary everything’s-dreadful scribblers. He might do no more than guffaw at our foolishness in taking such folk seriously. Indeed, in Is Life Worth Living?, he barely does more than that with Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, and, for a bonus, Tolstoy. A jolly, neatly built, extended comedy sketch of a play, it suggests a 1930s backdate of Gerard Alessandrini’s Forbidden Broadway, with an Irish lilt in lieu of showtunes and a Modern Drama syllabus for its target. The Mint could do worse than round off the evening, after Robinson’s romp, by playing Alessandrini’s “How Are Things in Irish Drama?”, a spoof of McDonagh’s Beauty Queen of Leenane set to the tune of “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?”
Robinson, who managed Dublin’s Abbey Theatre for decades, was steeped in the modernist movement, with a particular passion for Ibsen. But he had started as a naive, sheltered, small-town minister’s son on whom the theater itself, as well as its bold new Ibsenite voices, had an explosive effect. In Is Life Worth Living?, he imagines a whole town experiencing the equivalent effect: At the sleepy Irish seaside resort of Inish, John Twohig (Paul O’Brien), proprietor of both the best local hotel and the nearby entertainment palace, tries to drum up trade by booking into the latter, instead of the usual ragtag music-and-comedy troupe, a threadbare but still gamely earnest rep company, headed by Delamare (Kevin Kilner) and his wife, Constance (Jordan Baker).
The consequences are instantaneous—a mere line run of Tolstoy’s Power of Darkness triggers hysterics in a servant girl with a troubled past—and as comically automatic as reflexes. Rumor, suspicion, and suicide attempts proliferate, along with hints of murder and arson; echoes of A Doll’s House, Three Sisters, and An Enemy of the People crop up in Twohig’s own household. Even the normally sunny summer weather turns, Ibsenitically, into continuous darkness and rain, lousing up trade in the rival resort towns nearby while the upsurge of lurid incidents puts Inish on the map, much to its residents’ dismay, and makes the theater’s box office boom.
Robinson handles these upheavals shallowly, but with a canny eye to comic contrasts. Thoroughly knowing both the plays and the small-town types he is dealing with, he’s able to play them off against each other, so that the ordinary folks’ behavior becomes, in effect, a critique of the great dramatists’ stark visions even as the starkness is penetrating their souls. Unlike the masters he’s teasing, he can’t pause to contemplate any situation more deeply; otherwise, the comedy would cease to roll along, as well as cease to be funny.
To keep from seeming overly mechanical, the script’s shallowness needs to be infused with warm, vigorous comic playing; the multiple facets conveyed by the performances would then conceal the flat edges of the mechanism. Unluckily, Jonathan Bank, directing the Mint’s revival, seems to have imposed a ceiling of caution on his cast, as if nervous that the comedy might get out of hand and turn the evening into a brogue-ridden Saturday Night Live. He needn’t have worried, given that his cast consists mainly of skilled naturalistic actors rather than comedians. As a result, the gloom that spreads over the Twohig household often seems merely damp instead of funny, though the laughs lying in wait inside the text get triggered with regularity. Baker, elegantly playing the rep company’s diva just this side of affectation, scoops them up most efficiently. O’Brien’s strongly focused ire, and Graham Outerbridge’s nicely nuanced woe as his suddenly suicidal son, stay within realism’s bounds, but do much to drive away the damp.
Some grudging praise should be offered to Daniel Goldfarb, for writing The Retributionists, and to Playwrights Horizons for producing it: A young writer willing to tackle a big, somber historical subject is always a sign of hope. Regrettably, the results here don’t justify the praise being any more than grudging. Goldfarb’s characters—four young Polish Jews who have survived extermination by escaping to the forest—scheme in 1946 to implement their personal revenge for the Nazi death camps by slaughtering an equivalent number of postwar Germans. To say that Goldfarb doesn’t understand what he’s talking about might itself be too generous: His people, their circumstances, their various pasts, and the chaotic postwar world around them are all so sketchily conveyed that I literally have no idea what he does or doesn’t understand.
That their revenge schemes are sketchy to the point of absurdity at least seems intentional, since Goldfarb appears far more interested in the romantic jealousies being quadrangularly battled out among them. The effect is embarrassingly inappropriate, like singles-bar flirtations and squabbles carried on in a Holocaust museum. Under Leigh Silverman’s direction, the four young leads push the material as hard as they can toward believability; sometimes, only the pushing is evident. The most painful part, for me, is that Goldfarb had such gigantically powerful material within sight, and so completely failed to grasp it.