Strike one was Terrence Rattigan’s Man and Boy. Strike two was Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca. And here comes strike three.
The Roundabout Theatre Company’s new production of John Osborne’s once incendiary 1956 English drama Look Back in Anger marks the third painfully boring revival that it has produced in recent months. With the sole exception of Sons of the Prophet, an excellent new play by Stephen Karam, this has been a particularly bad season for the Roundabout.
While Look Back in Anger has not aged well, its historical significance can’t be overstated. In reaction to the boulevard comedies and escapist fare popular on the English stage at the time, Osborne and his contemporaries – nicknamed the “angry young men” – emphasized gritty realism, serious themes and working-class characters.
The play is set in the small, squalid attic apartment of Jimmy (Matthew Rhys), a violent and resentful young man, and his sweet wife Alison (Sarah Goldberg), who came from a wealthy family. After reading the Sunday paper with his pal Cliff (Adam Driver), Jimmy proceeds to verbally abuse Alison, who later confides to Cliff that she is pregnant.
After Alison’s friend Helena (Charlotte Parry) convinces Helena to leave Jimmy, in an absurd twist, Helena eagerly takes Alison’s place as Jimmy’s lover. (Alison’s father, a minor character, has been excised from this production.)
The odd and plodding staging by hotshot director Sam Gold (Seminar, Circle Mirror Transformation) takes place on the narrow, thin edge of the stage next to a chalkboard-like black wall. The little space that remains is littered with trash and discarded items of clothing.
Although Gold’s downstage concept accentuates the stifling and confined conditions that cause Jimmy to snap, it leaves the cast with nowhere to move. Whenever an actor is supposed to go offstage, he or she sits on a small set of stairs at the far end, as if sentenced to a “time out” for bad behavior. This also defeats the play's intended realism.
Yet even if it were staged correctly, Look Back in Anger has altogether lost its shock value. It comes off as just another domestic soap opera in a kitchen-sink setting with whiny, annoying characters and virtually no plot. If not much else, Jimmy’s endless fury does parallel the emotions of the recent Occupy Wall Street movement.
Rhys delivers a pallid performance as Jimmy that forsakes the character’s brutish, imposing personality for being depressed. Driver, on the other hand, is far more physical and captures the grime of the period. Goldberg makes for a credibly fragile Alison, while Parry projects a confident sexuality that allows her character to easily seduce Jimmy.