Look Back in Anger: Rebels Without a Cause

The haphazard presentation of this play will have theater-goers longing for the '50s original, when saying nothing was something

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Goldberg and Adam Driver not all that sure what they're talking about. (Roundabout Theatre Company)

The arrival of Look Back in Anger, John Osborne’s revolutionary play about anger, decay and the rage simmering beneath the surface of British losers in the 1950s, revolutionized play writing and marked the beginning of a new decade of torn T-shirts and kitchen-sink misery on the London stage and the end of the well-written, elegantly staged works of Terence Rattigan, Enid Bagnold and Noël Coward. It was hailed as an important work when it opened in 1956 at the small, experimental Royal Court Theatre off Sloane Square, an alternative to the glossy productions in the West End. It was filled with hell and fury and shouted obscenities, a “protest” play unlike any slice of realism ever witnessed by refined London audiences weaned on Ibsen and Shaw. The excitement faded fast. By the time it was turned into a film of sweat, grief and brimstone in 1958 starring a young, virile Richard Burton, its time had passed. The movie was a flop and Look Back in Anger was toothless history. Mr. Osborne was credited (and cursed) with shuttering the complacency of well-ordered British dramaturgy. Time has now born witness to a desperate need to bring back Rattigan, Coward and the others. And not a moment to soon. (Revivals of the Rattigan ouevre are all the rage in London during this, his centennial birthday year, with a pristine new film of The Deep Blue Sea, starring Rachel Weisz in the role originated on stage and screen by Vivien Leigh, set to open next month.)

The current Broadway revival of Look Back in Anger, produced by the Roundabout at the Laura Pels Theatre on West 46th Street, makes me wonder what the fuss was all about in the first place. Gone is the suffocating claustrophobia of a nasty slum flat in the Midlands that was home to Jimmy Porter, his emotionally scarred wife, Alison, and their lazy flatmate, Cliff, who lies around reading the Sunday papers like a lump of biscuit dough, cracking his toes. The flat has now expanded into a vast, coffin-gray cavern with no wing space and a back wall against which the three louts smash dirty dishes and toss the garbage and each other. I’ve seen ugly devastation passed off as an emotional wasteland before, but I have never seen anything this vile. Even the toilet seems to flush into the room. At one point, Jimmy dumps a can of what looks like dog food on top of Cliff and it stays there for the entire play, on the floor and sliding down the wall, with the actors stepping over and around it like dog poop. The set is littered with tomato peels, used Kleenex, empty beer bottles, broken furniture and a fouled mattress everyone sleeps on. In one corner of the stage I noticed a cabbage someone had tossed onto a pile of soiled underwear. It’s tough to concentrate on dialogue when you’re a nervous wreck about what the actors are going to step in.

Jimmy Porter is a college-educated man who uses words like “pusillanimous” and “phlegmatic” to describe people, but is too dumb to realize that the word “putrescent” describes his environment perfectly. He has never been able to hold down any job other than selling candy in a street stall. He rants against the filth around him, but as an “angry young man” it is never clear just what he’s angry about. His squalid life consists of playing roughhouse with Cliff and emotionally vandalizing his weak, masochistic wife, who is too afraid to tell him she’s pregnant. At one point, he even knocks over the ironing board while she’s doing his shirts in her slip, burning her with a hot iron and ignoring her pain. Three years married and all he does is abuse her, ridicule her for going to church, and toss his used soup tins across the room for her to clean up. They are working-class cretins, the British equivalents of Stanley Kowalski without the humor or the humanity, and “common as dirt” as Marlon Brando used to say, scratching his crotch. Enter the wife’s snobby best friend, Helena, who not only meddles but plots to rescue Alison from her marital prison. After she succeeds, Helena switches gears in an implausible character reversal, moves in with Jimmy and Cliff and takes over Alison’s place in the flat, in the slip, in the bed and at the ironing board. She’s intended to symbolize the ultimate demoralization of women who will lower their values and forsake everything they believe in for a good fuck. Now we have four pitiful, unhappy weaklings instead of three. As the play drags on to a dismal ending, there is more, but who cares?

Sloppily directed by Sam Gold, this dour revival is a two-and-a-half-hour mess. The fire and passion are missing. The acting is functional, with the exception of that of Matthew Rhys, who hails from Wales and looks a lot like Kenneth Haigh, who originated the role at the Royal Court and on Broadway. He has real talent and range, and he shows you the anguish beneath the skin, but his eloquent tirades are tiring. Sarah Goldberg, as the battered, nerve-jangled wife, is no Mary Ure. She shows you the bruises but not the sensitivity, and why are her feet black as coal and hideous black gashes across her legs? When she returns from civilization after losing her baby, her feet are still dirty. These lapses in reason may seem trivial to you, but they drive me crazy. Maybe there is no sink backstage at the Laura Pels. Look Back in Anger is like a pit bull with its teeth extracted. It’s a dated slice of postwar British culture long dead and forgotten, its whining self-indulgence grows wearisome, and it has nothing relevant to say to today’s audiences. Some things should just stay in mothballs and never travel.

rreed@observer.com

 

Comments

  1. I think the play has diminished in its capacity to surprise us.  Too much work has come along that has been inspired by its example and then surpassed it.  But I do think you underestimate the acting.  I think it some of the best of the season.