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Look Back In Anger

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Look Back In Anger
Sarah Goldberg and Matthew Rhys
Photo by Joan Marcus.

If it didn’t already have strong associations elsewhere, Rebel Without a Cause would be the ideal new title for the revival of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger that Roundabout has just opened at the Laura Pels Theatre. This 1956 play, which famously ushered in the “angry young man” subgenre of British mid-20th-century writing, retains a lot of its heated allure in theory, but very little about this new mounting aside from the acting seriously attempts to bring it out.

That’s the biggest surprise of the evening, in fact, given that the director is Sam Gold. This justly acclaimed on-the-rise helmer has, over the last several years, delivered bravura stagings of amazingly diverse works such as The Black Eyed, Dusk Rings a Bell, and especially Kin and Circle Mirror Transformation, nearly all of which have capitalized on mining enormous emotions from scenarios seemingly too ordinary to contain them. One would have every right to believe that giving Osborne’s opus exactly the same treatment would be the easiest way to blow away the dust that’s accumulated during more than five decades of increasing openness and disaffection in society, whether in the U.K. or the U.S.

But this approach — or any approach — to the play only works if the target of the rage is unmistakable. We know almost immediately from our exposure to Jimmy Porter (Matthew Rhys), the 25-year-old malcontent living in a one-room Midlands flat, that the stifling one-dimensionality in which he spins is driving him over the edge. As this attitude is personified by both his wife, Alison (Sarah Goldberg), and their live-in friend, Cliff Lewis (Adam Driver), Jimmy is constantly surrounded by representatives of what he hates. That he’s stuffed in a cramped attic room in an apparently awful building only makes matters worse: His home is his coffin, and he knows it, but lacks the power, or at least the spiritual impetus, to make any but the most superficial changes to his situation. (Jimmy eventually drives away Alison and replaces her with her friend Helena Charles, played by Charlotte Parry, which is at best a temporary fix to his permanent problem.)

Gold, however, has not staged Look Back in Anger to highlight any of Jimmy’s struggles. What he’s done instead is applied a rigidly nonrealistic filter to the proceedings, and in doing so made it impossible to absorb or even accept the atmosphere and animosity that Jimmy should emit like sweat.

The chief feature of Andrew Lieberman’s set is a stage-spanning, featureless black wall, in front of which are placed a bare modicum of set pieces (a dresser, a mattress, a table, a couple of chairs, an ironing board, and so on). There are no decorations, no decorative absence of decorations for that matter, no windows, and no doors — the actors enter from an emergency exit in the house, making a grandly noisy show of doing so while Mark Barton’s lights remain at full brightness (they eventually dim). When the performers exit, they either sit motionless in the recessed stage-left steps or perch on railings in the auditorium and watch the action unfold. At one point, Driver even dangles his feet over the lip of the stage, further acknowledging (as if it were necessary) that this piece is an artificial construct and hardly something to be taken at face or heart value.

Such tricks sap every drop of urgency and immediacy from the play, and prevent you from ever getting even partially lost in the characters’ troubles. When it comes to working with the actors directly, Gold of course excels, and watching them lay out the pieces of this puzzle is where this production is most satisfying. Rhys is certainly a magnetic anchor for it all, approaching Jimmy’s vituperative dialogue with an acidic ache that makes you feel his troubles intellectually; Driver and Goldberg’s energized flatness, and Parry’s erotic antagonism, are likewise proper choices that would usually be quite effective. But without the claustrophobia of an realistically oppressive setting, creating the sense that Jimmy in particular is trapped within a maddening corner of the mundane from which escape is impossible, the conflict has no chance to ignite.

This trouble is compounded by some destructive edits to the script that have “streamlined” it by excising a fifth character. True, Alison’s father does not appear onstage much. But as the sole person with a solid claim to being sympathetic, he acts as both a moral anchor and a representative of the outside world we otherwise never see. By removing the only character representing a different variety of change, and someone who offers a perspective on the central plot that forces us to view its participants in a slightly different light, things get mired in impenetrable gloom, and push too hard the too-modern notion that everyone’s ills are someone else’s fault.

So, no, this isn’t really Look Back in Anger. It’s an amalgam, an approximation, something lesser than the original that only hints at the power Osborne’s signature play can have at its best. The trick with it, and so many plays like it, is to balance and contrast the heightened reality of its subject with the actual reality of its presentation, resulting in something more than either could conjure alone. Gold is usually expert at that sort of alchemy; why he didn’t attempt it here is anyone’s guess. But because he hasn’t, the screaming, the moaning, and the insults that are supposed to be the cry of a tormented transitional generation end up being much ado about nothing. That’s another fine alternate title for this play, come to think of it — is it taken?


Look Back In Anger
Through April 8
Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre
111 West 46th Street between 6th and 7th Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: www.roundabouttheatre.org