I don't think I was born too late to appreciate John Osborne’s debut play, Look Back in Anger—currently a Roundabout revival at the Laura Pels. I just don't think it holds anymore. That it created a revolution in its native Britain is comprehensible to me only in an academic historical context. It was a portrait of disaffected working class young adults, in the personification of, first and foremost, Jimmy Porter (Matthew Rhys), an articulate, educated, well-read fellow who can't even get considered for a job that will lift him out of his social class, despite society's promises to the contrary. This makes him chronically caustic, bitter and even surgically mean to those who love him most within the cramped and claustrophobic flat he occupies: his wife Alison (Sarah Goldberg) and his live-in best friend Cliff (Adam Driver).
Well, due to edits in the text of the current revival, the "explanatory" articulation of the social class struggle is mostly gone (in the questionable belief that Americans won't relate to a British class system, this is often the kind of thing that can get cut in US productions of certain Brit plays), so Jimmy’s rants don’t really even make much visceral sense and—though his delivery is really expressed in a kind of jabby, relentless nastiness—I couldn’t help but think, in appropriately British idiom, that he’s really just a shouty little man. It makes him—and the play—tough to take. More so the notion that women fall all over Jimmy. Alison’s best friend Helena (Charlotte Parry) comes to rescue her, you see, and well, once Allison is safely gone…Maybe there’s some “girls like bad boys” theme here as well, but it all seems like the ghost of something meant to be shocking, about which the most shocking thing is the proportion of its initial impact to its relevant shelf-life. (It seems to have fared no better in a 1999 CSC revival I missed—whose cast list indicates it employed the same or a similar cut version, which also dispenses with the character of Alison’s father—and certainly not in a 1980 prior Roundabout revival of 1980 that I did see, and remember only as disappointingly tame, for all Jimmy’s bad tempered histrionics.)
I’m not saying the play has become dull with age; Osborne was a colorful enough wordsmith to at least hold your attention. But it’s claustrophobic and oppressive in ways that I think exceed the playwright’s intended portraiture. Magnifying this, director Sam Gold and set designer Andrew Leiberman have conspired to create a set that is essentially a blackboard wall, with a few poverty props in front of it, that is placed so far downstage that the action seems confined to the depth of an apartment hallway. (In reality it’s probably about twice that—but only twice.) It’s a bold and memorable choice, but once the “shock” of it fades (i.e. the realization that that’s the game for the evening, that this is a world bereft of physical depth), it’s rather like Jimmy Porter’s endless parade of screeds—just there for the sake of being there, the physical manifestation of a literary conceit that draws attention to itself as a contrivance.
Happily, Gold’s cast, and the work he does with them, are much more intriguing—ironically in a way, because the distracting set and close quarters are the vehicle Gold uses to ramp up the pressure-cooker intimacy in which the characters live (especially as between wife and best friend in a manner that’s blatant and just as blatantly ignored by Jimmy). So there’s a kind of prurient, sometimes appalled, fascination that’s elicited.
Hardly enough, though, for the play to live up to its title. It’s more like, Look Back in Annoyance or to be more accurate, Look Back Annoyingly. And I don’t think any revival is capable of changing that anymore…
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