I caught a performance of Look Back in Anger close to the end of its run. The play evoked a palpable feeling of resignation and not simply because of proximity to its final performance. The portrayal of the angry young man that made so strong an impression on British theater has always affected me more as the depiction of women who have become resigned to a relationship threaded with abuse. My desire to see this incarnation was based mostly on a curiosity of what director Sam Gold would do with it. In New York theater, this has been the year of Sam Gold. He seems to be everywhere, and what has impressed me about his work is an incredible grasp of what sexual tension looks and feels like. That talent was on full display here; it was a veritable pressure cooker onstage. And much of that was due to the space he created for this production. The stage measured only five and a half feet deep, so in moments of either passionate intimacy or aggressive horseplay, the actors seemed precipitously close to the edge – of the stage, of reason, and so on. Also the set was gross. Garbage, half-eaten food, clothing, and newspapers covered the floor and further muddied and crowded the Porter home.
The fiery, vitriolic center of Look Back in Anger is Jimmy Porter, a lower-class Brit who is torn between love and resentment for his well-educated, upper-class wife, Alison. In this production, Jimmy’s anger touched on themes of politics and class struggles, but they didn’t penetrate those topics. Mostly he was a cantankerous asshole, which Matthew Rhys (the Brothers and Sisters star) portrayed convincingly but without much nuance.
Jimmy and Alison live with their close friend, Cliff, an unrefined yet sweet soul of a guy who becomes increasingly affectionate with Alison the more Jimmy puts her down. Played by Adam Driver, Cliff added much needed heart to the production. The play holds big surprises which occur following the arrival of Helena, Alison’s well-bred friend who is appalled by Jimmy’s boorishness and conspires to help Alison leave him. Gold embraced these twists of plot through movement that imposed on the confined space, but while visually interesting, it didn’t resonate. Maybe I just couldn’t get past the utter malleability of women, which (even in the 1950’s world of John Osbourne) is hard to digest. The only touching moment was the one that showed Jimmy and Alison’s playful and sincere intimacy. It revealed why she would marry someone so harmful: there is genuine passion there, though it was generally eclipsed by their incompatibility.
The signature tableau of the play depicted a woman ironing men’s clothing while the men snicker at the newspaper. The meticulousness dedicated to removing every wrinkle from Jimmy’s shirts looked bizarre amidst an absurdly dirty apartment. I’d probably pick garbage off my floor before starting on ironing, but maybe I was missing part of Gold’s aesthetic in those moments. In any case, he’s now on to his next revival, a new adaptation of Uncle Vanya, coming to Soho Rep this June. Despite Look Back in Anger falling a bit short, Gold is in the auspicious position of being a discernible success even when some of his productions aren’t.