On John Osborne’s “Look Back in Anger”

Look Back in Anger is also a Roundabout Theatre production, as is Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca, which has garnered some terrific reviews, but which I was sadly unable to see this trip.  I remember John Osborne’s signature play from my college years, when it was said that the play defined us all as “angry young men.”  I think maybe he was angrier than I was, or maybe I just didn’t know it at the time.  … No, of course he was angrier.   I was a member of the same boring middle class Osborne was railing against for hypocrisy, for lack of constructive moral values, and for vacuous indifference toward the plight of the working class.  In any case, when Look Back in Anger opened in 1956, it represented a radical departure from the kind of escapist drawing room drama that had preceded it.  Highly controversial, and definitely not “fun,” it seemed to rub our noses in a world that few wanted to acknowledge exists … of betrayal, of social, sexual and economic frustration, and of crashing dreams and ideals.  Life in Osborne’s world was very far from “the way things oughta be.”  Despite our experience with the many similarly themed film and stage plays that followed, Look Back in Anger is just as profoundly true today as it was when it debuted in 1956, if not more so.

Apparently autobiographical, at least in part, the play allegedly took only one month to write.  It involves a love triangle between Jimmy Porter (Matthew Rhys), his middle-class wife Alison (Sarah Goldberg), and her best friend, Helena (Charlotte Parry), who will take her place with Jimmy.  Their friend Cliff, played by Adam Driver, serves as a kind of moderating influence on Jimmy’s inner rage against middle class mediocrity and indifference.  All four turn in highly intense, subtle and believable performances.  There is a lot of repressed and not so repressed pain in these people.   The original character of Alison’s father, a member of the middle class that Jimmy despises, has been eliminated, probably to intensify the inescapable claustrophobic world of the play.

Director Sam Gold and his designers have made some bold choices.  The play happens in Jimmy’s seedy apartment in England’s midlands. In the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, the action is played out against a black wall.  The stage is theatre-wide, only about five feet deep. and littered with trash.  It’s a wide-open but tightly confined space, that keeps the actors both trapped and at the same time on display, like animals in a zoo.   They may step off the stage when not in a scene, but never out of the auditorium.  Minimalist suggestion without distraction is the concept, and it serves to bring the focus head first into the language and social principles the play so effectively articulates.

The play is in previews now, and will open on February 2.

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That’s the last of the seven plays I plugged into the five nights I spent in New York.  These “reviews” began many years back when I first started squeezing my theatre binges into limited nights in a city hotel room, for economy’s sake.  They’re not so much intended as reviews, but as personal responses to what I’ve seen, and a way to keep it all straight in my own head.  So check out the last 8 posts here.  If you’re interested in my sharing such responses with you in the future, please look in the box in the upper right corner, and enter your e-mail.  I don’t do this that often, so I promise not to inundate your mailbox.

I did manage to take in a bunch of movies while in the city too.  It’s cheap in the mornings, and a good way to keep out of the cold.  I won’t bother to discuss all of them, but there were a few gems among them, including Tinker Tailor…, A Separation, and Pina.   I’ll try to get them posted in the next few days.  And Joan and I are headed to D.C. this weekend to take in La Cage Aux Folles, with George Hamilton, and the Arena’s Red, about the painter Mark Rothko.  It’s a brilliant piece of theatre I’d seen last season in New York, with Alfred Molina, and I’m eager to see what Arena does with it.  So you can look for posts next week on that.  Then I’ll leave you alone for a while.

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