John Osborne’s 1956 theatrical eruption, Look Back in Anger, both engaged and disturbed British theatergoers with its protagonist: the bitter, caustic and loud Jimmy Porter. Jimmy famously inspired the designation “angry young men” to describe a real-life demographic: the generation of males from working-class backgrounds who, a decade after the end of World War II, were thoroughly frustrated with their lot, and not content to keep quiet about it.
Jimmy—in part Osborne’s fictional alter ego—comes from humble beginnings, but he has married up. His wife Alison has a relatively posh background. Her father is a military man who’d been stationed in India. Since the marriage, Alison’s family has fretted about Jimmy’s prospects. He’s tried various professions and has eventually been assisted by the mother of a friend in opening a local “sweet stall.” (One thinks of the notion in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion of finding a flower shop for Eliza Doolittle, another dramatic character bedeviled by class hierarchies.)
Jimmy can’t find a fulfilling purpose in life, although he is obviously whip-smart, educated, and intellectually engaged. He and Alison live in a cheap and depressing attic flat somewhere in the Midlands. He has—in his own mind, at any rate—defied the rigidity of the class system. As Kenneth Tynan wrote in his review of the debut production: “The Porters of our time are classless…and they are also leaderless.”
This current New York City revival, directed by Aimée Fortier, shifts the focus largely away from Jimmy and onto Alison (Elizabeth Scopel). Critics have described this character as passive, and there is evidence in the script that this is so. For instance, Alison can’t find the nerve or the right moment to tell Jimmy that she is pregnant.
In this production, though, she seems to have a reserve of strength at her core. We identify with her in her struggle to cope with the insufferable verbal abuse she takes from Jimmy (Ryan Welsh). As the action proceeds, she seems to emerge as the play’s central character. This production even gives Osborne’s denouement a feminist twist. (We may again be reminded of Eliza Doolittle—specifically, her liberated final scene in director Bartlett Sher’s 2018 Broadway revival of My Fair Lady.) It helps Fortier’s approach that, of the four leading players, Scopel delivers the smoothest, strongest and most believable performance in the production.
Welsh seems less fiery and overpowering here than you might expect. When he launches into Jimmy’s outraged verbal tirades, they’re sometimes spat out quickly and quietly, and we may tune them out, just as Alison and the other characters do (or try to do). Tynan, in his review of the debut production, cited Jimmy’s “evident and blazing vitality.” That quality is muted in this production. (This may be due in part to the trimming of some of his longer monologues from the original 1956 script.)
Tim Creavin portrays Cliff, Jimmy and Alison’s chum, who sleeps in a room down the hall but who spends much of his time in their cramped quarters, where he serves as a kind of buffer that keeps the pair from throttling each other. Cliff frequently pets and nuzzles Alison, which seems not to bother her or Jimmy in the least. Creavin’s performance seems a bit self-consciously actorly, especially in scenes in which Cliff and Jimmy engage in overly choreographed horseplay (some of it too bawdy to have passed muster with the Lord Chamberlain back in 1956). One hopes Creavin will relax into the role as the run continues.
Eventually, two more characters jump into the fray. Helena (Caroline Aimetti) is a theatrical friend of Alison’s, whose open dislike of Jimmy turns out to mask other sorts of feelings. It’s a tricky role, but Aimetti is up to the task. The excellent Stan Buturla plays the supporting role of Colonel Redfern, Alison’s father.
The direction has some heavy-handed moments. Sometimes Fortier has the cast (Welsh, especially) act out the things they’re talking about, instead of having them draw clear pictures using their words alone. It’s always tempting to want to fill the stage with something visual during long, talky sequences, but for a play with such a realistic tone, we don’t need the characters engaging in what look at times to be games of charades. Fortunately, the director’s touch is lighter at other times—notably, in an effective scene with Scopel and Aimetti near the play’s end.
Many of the design tasks here (including production and graphic design, costumes and props) are handled by Mary Marxen. The set—with its slanted ceiling emphasizing that the Porters’ living space is situated in a dormer—is effective. Concern about historical accuracy is not stringent here, however. We are shown both pantyhose (not invented until 1959) and color “adverts” in daily newspapers (something very seldom seen in the 1950’s). The lighting by Gilbert “Lucky” Pearto is appropriately subtle and unobtrusive.
This may not be the perfect Look Back in Anger revival, but it is worth seeing, especially if you’ve always been curious about this watershed dramatic work but have never had the chance to see it up on its feet.
Look Back in Anger (through February 29, 2020)
Celtic Lion Productions and Ryan Welsh & Joy Donze
The Gene Frankel Theater, 24 Bond Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.brownpapertickets.com
Running time: two hours and 25 minutes including one intermission