History's Mysteries

Steven Goldstein and Peter Jacobson in The Water Engine: To air is human.
photo: Carol Rosegg
Steven Goldstein and Peter Jacobson in The Water Engine: To air is human.

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Mr. Happiness & The Water Engine
By David Mamet
Atlantic Theatre Company
336 West 20th Street, 239-6200

Look Back in Anger
By John Osborne
Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street, 677-4210

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Jo Bonney's production gives the tantrums their due, but she can't help seeing through the postures to the yawn-causing self-pity underneath. Reg Rogers, her Jimmy, presumably has notes in his range beyond the whiny, though it's hard to imagine him coming close, in the tough-and-sexy department, to either Kenneth Haigh, who created the role, or Richard Burton, who filmed it. Be that as it may, this Jimmy Porter acts not with a bang but a whimper; his colleagues have him outclassed in both senses of the word. Angelina Phillips makes two-faced Helena (one of Osborne's least convincing creations) a believable figure, while Enid Graham, as the stressed-out, proudly silent Alison, is a three-dimensional marvel. What's disturbing is that Rogers's bundle of sulks and quivers seems to have provoked these female extremes; what he's doing fits the script-the ultimate condemnation of Osborne's work. The brusque, manly seductiveness of a Haigh or Burton was the coverup for Osborne's shortcomings, as surely as the flashing studio lights covered up the flaws in The Water Engine. But good performances can't rescue Osborne's hollow honkings. The English theater exploded in 1956, and maybe his drab little play struck the match; to me, what was packed inside the powder keg is more interesting. That London's theater enshrines Osborne, while sloughing off the more inventive writers around him, may explain why English playwriting, in the past 20 years, has declined to its current degraded state.

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