That, unfortunately, is the best that can be said for the rage-infused revival of John Osborne’s groundbreaking play, Look Back In Anger, now on view at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theater.
Look Back In Anger, a sharp-eyed, sharp-tongued portrait of the lost generation of post-World War II 20-something Brits, has always had a mixed reputation. Ever since its London premiere in 1956, it has been both reviled and revered, but, having seen two very different productions in the past couple of years, I believe there are depths to be found within this seemingly endless rant of a play that are waiting to be corralled by the right director and the right actors.
In this case, the director is Sam Gold, who in recent years has shown himself to be a wunderkind (Circle Mirror Transformation, The Aliens, Seminar) and who is now—for better or for worse, it remains to be seen which—a Roundabout Associate Artist. Look Back in Anger, however, seems to have eluded his grasp.
Here, Gold has opted to rev up the audience with a pre-show recorded jazz concert (Dizzy Gillespie?), which, depending on your predilection for such things, is either highly entertaining (I enjoyed it) or migraine-inducing (as a theater-going colleague called it).
The connection to the play is peripheral. Osborne’s “angry young man” Jimmy Porter (Matthew Rhys, who is Welsh and at least sounds authentically British) had, at one time, performed with a jazz band. During the course of the play, he pulls out his trumpet from time to time and bleats some dissonant riffs, seemingly for the sole purpose of annoying those around him. If he could play like the recorded jazz musicians, he would have a brilliant future indeed (but then he might lose his hallmark frustrated edginess.)
The play itself opens with a long period of silence, as Jimmy and his friend Cliff (the ubiquitous Adam Driver, for whom Roundabout and various efforts at British accents have defined his work through several recent productions) are reading the Sunday papers, while Jimmy’s wife Alison (the unfortunately shrill Sarah Goldberg)—dressed in a bra, slip, and open house robe—is doing the ironing.
This opening, set in a squalid room that defines the narrow boundaries of Jimmy and Alison’s flat and of their lives, is rather Pinteresque in its snapshot of skewed domesticity and its discomfiting air of foreboding. Alas, however, the silence is soon broken, and Jimmy spends much of the rest of the play spewing forth a steady stream of invective aimed at Alison and her upper class family, Cliff, the landlady, the government, the church, the world in general, and, upon occasion, himself.
Unfortunately, that’s pretty much the play as it is being presented on the stage of the Laura Pels.
But it needn’t be that way. The play raises some intriguing issues that beg to be explored. If Pinter shows up in the opening scene, there are also pieces of August Strindberg, Tennessee Williams, and Edward Albee to be found.
Borrowing from Strindberg, imagine if Miss Julie had married her footman. What would their lives be like? That’s Alison and Jimmy, locked forever in some fatal love-hate attraction that is beyond easy understanding.
Alison is Jimmy’s equal in many ways, but her tactics are her own, and she definitely is not afraid of his bluster. For the most part, she gets in her digs by choosing not to react to his baiting, by being openly sexual with Cliff, and by cultivating friendships with people she knows that Jimmy despises. There is also in the play a scene that has been deleted for this production, a reunion between Alison and her father that is very telling about the world she has left behind. This is an important moment, because it unexpectedly shows her father to be a kind and sympathetic character and adds another layer of complexity to the unfolding events. Yet it has been sacrificed, either to spare the expense of hiring another actor or in service of the vexing and constant battle.
Then there is Tennessee Williams. A passing remark is made about Marlon Brando, and, indeed, Jimmy does have a lot in common with Stanley Kowalksi, the brutish character Brando so indelibly brought to life in A Streetcar Named Desire. Like Stanley famously yelling for his Stella, there is a core of pain underlying Jimmy’s anger, a pain that—if brought out though directorial and acting choices—would humanize Jimmy and give the audience someone they could actually care about.
There is also Jimmy’s puzzling relationship with Cliff, another important key to understanding Jimmy that could be explored more deeply. The production I saw back in 2010 by The Seeing Place at A.T.A. Sargent Theater played up this aspect and made the triangle a most interesting one. In this production, however, Cliff seems to lack personality and serves solely as the mediator between Jimmy and Alison.
Later, the delicate balance they have all maintained is threatened with the arrival on the scene of Alison’s friend Helena (a solid performance by Charlotte Parry). Major upheaval ensues, yet in this production Jimmy seems pretty much unaffected, unable or unwilling to move out of the role he has assigned to himself. In the end, a temporary truce comes into play (à la Albee's George and Martha at the end of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), but we cannot leave the theater imagining it will last for long.
In the final analysis, I found this production of Look Back In Anger to be disappointing. Jimmy, our jazz trumpeter, is purely a Johnny One-Note, and Osborne’s significant portrait of a sadly lost soul is itself lost on us.
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