Tuesday, April 3, 2012

theatre review LOOK BACK IN ANGER, Off Broadway, March 31

The "angry young man" is a well known character in both plays and movies.  But that term wasn't known until the mid 1950's when John Osborne's play Look Bank in Anger burst upon the London stage.  Over the course of three acts, we meet and get to know Jimmy Porter and his three friends, and while they are pretty much all angry it is Jimmy who is the angry young man in question, and boy is he angry.   He is a working class man but one with an education, but he is angry at everything from his wife, his job, his friends, family, the mediocrity of his generation and the class system in general.  After years of posh upper crust English plays like The Importance of Being Earnest and Blithe Spirit one can hardly grasp the gasps that must have come from the audience when they saw the characters and language that was in front of them when Look Back in Anger first premiered.  Supposedly just the sight of an ironing board on the stage alone when the curtain went up dress gasps.  Imagine an ironing board on stage in either Earnest or Blithe Spirit!

Matthew Rhys and Sarah Goldberg
Jimmy is an intellectual bad boy and it is easy to see why both his wife and her friend fall for him, even though both ladies are from a much higher class on the class scale.  Even Cliff who rents the room next door is drawn to Jimmy.  Jimmy is a man fighting but with no cause or crusade.  It is as if Osborne is saying that this is what centuries of the class system in England have spit out.

Today the shock of the play is nothing compared to what it must have been like almost sixty years ago but this revival of the play is still shocking in its ability to cut to the raw nerve at the center of the piece.  It gets there by having one of the most minimal set designs in recent history as the entire stage is about six feet deep and consists of a black back wall, a mattress, a couple of dressers, a few chairs and an ironing board.  This minimalistic approach is effective in grounding us in the reality of how Jimmy and his wife Allison are living.  The stage is on a slightly higher platform than usual as if the four characters are on display for us and in such a small setting as if they are trapped with no where to go.  If this idea of being trapped and lost was what director Sam Gold was going for then he vastly succeeded.

Adam Driver, Sarah Goldberg and Matthew Rhys-
this is about 1/2 of the entire set!
 The cast is simply superb.  Led by Matthew Rhys, best known as Kevin from tv's Brothers and Sisters, he is so effective as Jimmy that he perfectly gets under the skin  of the character ringing every nuance out of Osborne's language.  His emotional range alone is amazing and the way he delivers the words, almost in the way a poet would, makes the other characters and the audience pay attention.  You can easily see how others would be drawn to him.  He is exciting and intense but you also see in his eyes the love that he has for the other characters.  He also plays a pretty good trumpet, even if he only knows a few notes.

Matthew Rhys and Charlotte Parry
The supporting cast is just as good,  Sarah Goldberg as Jimmy's wife Alison is quiet and reserved around Jimmy as if trying not to wake the sleeping, angry giant.  The way that Alison tears into a head of lettuce when she makes a salad more than exhibits in frustration as well as what her true feelings for life are.  Adam Driver as Cliff so perfectly exhibits the lost youth who clamors for anything to excite him and when that excitement comes in Jimmy and Alison you know there won't be much of a happy ending for him.  Charlotte Parry as Helena is excellent at playing two sides of a character, the upper crust one who looks down upon the life that Alison has made with Jimmy but then finds herself, in a very humorous moment in the second act, living exactly the same existence as Alison.

Look Back in Anger is an interesting play in that while it is about desperation and how characters are drawn to others while being used or using them it is also about lost youth and how society has forced some individuals to only achieve certain levels of success.  Seeing this show in a weekend when we saw the new play Clybourne Park and the classic drama Twelve Angry Men was very interesting as they all deal with the issue of race or class and how society treats people differently.  This production only runs through this Sunday, April 8th, don't miss your chance to see this excellent production.

Official Show Site

Highlights from this production:

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