John Osborne’s 1956 play Look Back in Anger, now being presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre, shook English-speaking theater to its foundations and led to the newly coined term “Angry Young Man.”
So there’s no question the challenge director Sam Gold faced in mounting this possibly-dated work was finding an approach to the fire-brand script that would infuse it with the shock value it had at its debut. Not only has he met the test, Gold deserves a chorus of huzzahs for unmitigated audacity.
What he and set designer Andrew Lieberman have done is erect a ceiling-high black wall approximately three or four feet from the edge of the stage, forcing onto very few narrow square feet the action unfolding in the one-room midlands-England flat inhabited by perpetually enraged Jimmy Porter (Matthew Rhys) and his verbally abused wife Alison (Sarah Goldberg). The confining strip serves the same purpose for madness inducement as a prison’s isolation cell.
In the minimal playing area are placed shabby furnishings — a battered chest of drawers, a collapsible card-table, a kitchen stove unit, an ironing-board put to continual use, a soiled mattress — along with the detritus of everyday living, including discarded newspapers and tin cans thrown aside when the contents have been eaten.
The brilliance of the conceit is that Gold, Lieberman and lighting designer Mark Barton have created a cogent metaphor for the pressure-cooker life the Porters lead — one made even tighter by the near-constant presence of roommate Cliff Lewis (Adam Driver) and, eventually, Alison’s actress friend Helena Charles (Charlotte Parry), who comes for a visit and later becomes a permanent resident.
A disgruntled candy-store owner who doesn’t know what to do with his Sundays, Jimmy finds his life constantly infuriating. He’s an over-educated, profoundly frustrated man convinced the world’s “brave causes” are in the past and, as a member of the post-World War II generation bereft of anything worth proving.
As a result, Jimmy rails non-stop at his spouse, spars compulsively with his buddy, and even plays the trumpet to let out his feelings. Faced with this supremely tough assignment, Rhys does everything he’s asked to do, and more.
Goldberg, a sharp-featured blonde as beautiful as the others say she is, gives a performance of disturbing range which establishes her as an important leading lady to watch. Parry perfectly conveys the anguish of a woman torn between being a loyal friend and succumbing to an attraction for the wrong man, and Driver is absolutely on a par with the rest of the quartet as the lumbering, good-hearted Cliff.