For the British theater, the historical importance of John Osborne’s 1956 play, Look Back in Anger (Laura Pels Theatre), can’t be overestimated. It marked a pivotal shift not only for theatergoers but also for Britain’s cultural consciousness generally. Playwrights as different from Osborne as Tom Stoppard and the late Harold Pinter have cited it as a seminal event in their lives. In America, though, Look Back in Anger, while admired, has always evoked a more limited response: Its Broadway production, with most of the original London cast, had no more than a “prestige” success. Off-Broadway revivals—at the Roundabout with Malcolm McDowell in 1980 and at CSC with Reg Rogers and Angie Phillips in 1998—similarly stirred only mild enthusiasm.
So I’m not surprised that mild enthusiasm is the most I can muster for the Roundabout’s new production, directed by Sam Gold, even though I think it catches more of the play’s spirit than its Off-Broadway predecessors. Gold’s rendition has its quirks and its limitations, but the reasons for the shortfall in response lie deeper, both in Osborne’s work and in the difference between our two English-speaking cultures.
Osborne’s hero, Jimmy Porter (Matthew Rhys), is a lower-class young man with a university education. In England, this was a fairly new phenomenon in 1956, brought about by the postwar Labour government’s sponsorship of public higher education through the “redbrick” universities. By the mid 1950s, Britain had produced a new generation of knowledgeable, discontented young people who perceived Jimmy as their representative and spokesman, challenging the old system of class stratification and the old-boy network that kept it running.
Many Americans find the phenomenon hard to comprehend, since, while our country has never lacked for social snobbery, the origins of our elite families’ class status, so much closer in time, have always been plainly visible. Our robber barons did their pillaging less than 200 years ago; the loftiest English families did theirs between the 12th and 16th centuries. In England, lower-class men who attained wealth and power were kept on the fringes of polite society; in America, they became socially dominant figures. Here, the social barriers were ethnic and racial, not hierarchical. The British stage’s stock comic parvenu, with his grammatical solecisms and breaches of etiquette, sported, in America, a thickly comic foreign dialect—Irish, Jewish, Italian, Slav—to match the polka-dotted handkerchief he traditionally flourished.
Jimmy Porter was something new: the bright, educated working-class boy who won’t play the upper-class game on principle. Refusing to “get ahead” either fiscally or socially, he takes up a dead-end lower-class profession, keeping a “sweet stall” (candy shop), half on grounds of class solidarity and half out of Cold War–era existential despair. He laments that there are “no good causes” anymore. Inevitably, he has acquired an upper-class wife, Alison (Sarah Goldberg), whom he bullies and browbeats over her refined attitudes.
In England, Jimmy’s rants against Alison brought, and still bring, shocks of recognition along with their theatrical impact—as does his almost casual turning, when she walks out, to her visiting friend, Helena (Charlotte Parry). The events supply no such shock in America, where ethnic lower-class heroes had been battling the system, often conquering it, for decades before Jimmy’s arrival. For instance, the hero of Elmer Rice’s Counsellor-at-Law (1933), a Jewish former slum kid with a socially prominent wife, confronts troubles Jimmy would recognize, not without similar rants and hints of a similar despair.
That despair, the feeling that keeps bringing people back to Osborne’s play long after its class issues have atrophied, seems to be the focus of Gold’s interest. Andrew Lieberman’s set is a virtual no-exit situation: a blank black wall and a narrow strip of playing space. The offstage room the couple sublets to Jimmy’s co-worker, Cliff (Adam Driver), where Jimmy retreats to sulk, is now placed visibly onstage. One key character, Alison’s military father, has been cut, diluting the script’s complexity.
The overmastering despair mutes the anger, which should be, in effect, the play’s title song. Rhys, tender and surly, shows only banked fires, which makes Alison’s devotion to him seem puzzling, despite Goldberg’s touching work. Although mapping Osborne’s emotional trajectory with precision, Gold hasn’t made the script leap into life. And it might be that, here and now, no such leap is possible.