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Shows Worth Seeing:

l. to r., Adam Driver as Cliff, Sarah Goldberg as Alison, Matthew Rhys as Jimmy in John Osborne's "Look Back in Anger," dir. by Sam Gold, Roundabout Theatre, 2012. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Look Back in Anger

By John Osborne
Laura Pels Theatre
111 W. 46th St.
Box office: (212) 719-1300

The Roundabout Theatre is an unfailingly middlebrow institution that usually resists testing aesthetic thresholds. Thrillingly, however, its current revival of Look Back in Anger is a smartly risky venture that deserves the attention of anyone interested in precise acting, intelligent dramaturgy, and luminous cultural collisions. The American director Sam Gold has been pilloried in some critical circles for taking what appears to be a high-concept approach to this rebarbative and difficult 1956 British classic. Gold has set the action not in a realistic one-room Midlands flat, as John Osborne specifies, but rather on an absurdly narrow strip of stage jammed up close to the audience, with nothing but a black chalkboard wall behind and some shabby furniture and bric-a-brac to suggest messy living quarters. This stripped down setting, though, is as far as the concept goes. Unlike a high-handed European director, Gold didn’t deconstruct the play or invent ingenious antics to play against the text. Instead, he essentialized the space and then filled it with the play-as-written, encouraging his exquisite cast to explore the characters’ emotional and psychological journeys as fully and deeply as possible. The result is anything but an actor-stifling stranglehold, as some reviewers have claimed, but rather a revelatory clash of theatrical idioms that sets the old play off in bright, fresh relief.

Look Back in Anger is an aggressive drama, hard to stage well in the contemporary U.S. because its specific postwar British milieu is so crucial to understanding the bizarrely torrential rage of its lead character, Jimmy Porter. Today’s American audiences know little about the pressures and disappointments of that era, and no painstakingly realistic setting is likely to make them care. It was shrewd of Gold to observe that the right actors could carry the burden of the milieu within them by making their emotional interactions true, immediate and precise. We can care about them, and the pathos of their suffering will make us seek out the deeper causes for it in retrospect. Dazzling us with period details would only have been distracting and dulling.

Matthew Rhys is extraordinary as Jimmy, a toxic teddy-bear of a man who spits lacerating words at his loved ones on the slightest pretext. The way his three stage partners bear his onslaught (Sarah Goldberg as Jimmy's wife Alison, Adam Driver as his friend Cliff, and Charlotte Parry as his frenemy and lover Helena), absorbing, deflecting, redirecting, and tentatively returning his fire on occasion, is impossible to look away from. Goldberg in particular is deeply affecting as Alison, a brittle shell of smiling forbearance who heroically holds her heartache within until it nearly drowns her and she leaves to save both their lives. Yet the greatest marvel of the show is the way the ridiculously empty set serves as a flexible foil for the acting, reading one minute as a perfectly aggressive complement to Jimmy’s vicious barbs, the next as pungently desolate seasoning to everyone’s pain and despair. What’s on display here is a dynamic and fruitful compromise between Anglo and continental styles of a sort seen too rarely in our theater. Don’t take anyone’s word for this gem; you should appraise it for yourself.



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