Fifty-six years ago, 25-year-old John Osborne took the sex and basic story of A Streetcar Named Desire (lower class boy weds well-bred girl, whose disapproving acquaintance complicates their fiery relationship), added details of his own dissolving marriage (he, too, ”married up”) and wrote his most influential work, Look Back in Anger, in 30 feverish days. Osborne’s hero, Jimmy Porter, grew up poor, yet in postwar Britain was able to afford a college education — but humiliatingly only finds work running a candy stand. He lives in a dingy attic apartment of an old Victorian house in the English Midlands with his middle-class wife, Allison, and his puppyish, lower-class best friend, Cliff. Together, they bear Jimmy’s many $10-word invectives and poisonous diatribes. He rants about Allison’s family hating him. He rants about Cliff’s lack of sophistication. He rants about the Sunday papers, the upper class, the welfare state, bad art, worse politics, and the impending visit of Allison’s judgmental friend Helena (who ultimately changes their lives). He even rants about Allison and Cliff not ranting, nicknaming her ”pusillanimous” and him ”mouse.” Jimmy’s lot in life has made him — like the name of the 1950s British literary movement that Osborne inspired — one very angry young man.
In Sam Gold’s fresh reimagining of Anger at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, Jimmy (a superb Matthew Rhys) is still angry. He is still young (though Rhys, at 37, is considerably older than the 25-year-old Jimmy is supposed to be). And he is still undeniably a man. But he’s no longer the Angry Young Man who made Osborne’s play seminal. Gold — as he has said in interviews — is more interested in distilling Anger’s timeless story of disillusioned young love rather than a young man who is disillusioned. At that, he’s very successful. He never breaks the sexual tension, dropping an entire character (Allison’s colonel father) to keep the action focused on four hormonal twentysomethings — Jimmy, Allison (Sarah Goldberg), Cliff (Adam Driver), and Helena (Charlotte Parry) — caged in the attic room. He also plays down Anger’s period aspects, mostly by modifying the Porters’ apartment, making it less of an historical document than an anthropological study. Andrew Lieberman’s sparse set couldn’t be more different than the overly furnished, skylit room described in Osborne’s original script. The actors have to maneuver between a stark black wall and the audience with only five feet of stage cluttered with a few nondescript bits of furniture and many pieces of detritus (clothes, newspapers, heads of lettuce). It’s a balancing act similar to the challenge of keeping Jimmy from exploding.
Gold’s is a first-rate production of a carefully altered play. Yet by disposing of the Colonel, he also throws out a pivotal exchange between Allison and her father that rationalizes the disappointment behind Jimmy’s rage and Allison’s suffering through it. And by underplaying the 1950s, Jimmy’s very particular gripe — that like many underclass men of that decade, he bettered himself only to still be unwelcomed by the white-collar workforce and the parents of posh girls — isn’t specific enough to explain why he would seek vengeance by torturing Allison’s middle-class family.
In Gold’s vision, Jimmy is little more than a well-read, verbally dexterous thug whose emotional abuse provoked one audience member during the performance I attended to scream ”How repulsive!” despite Rhys’ very good intentions. The actor (most recognizable from Brothers & Sisters) delivers one of the better Jimmy Porter since Richard Burton’s in Tony Richardson’s 52-year-old movie adaptation — and that’s including Kenneth Branagh’s try in the 1989 telefilm. Goldberg, with her broken voice and weary stare, is an even bigger find. She never mistakes Allison’s inability to leave her husband for her being a simple pushover. Yet such cleverness is lost in Gold’s love story. Theirs were the first performances I’ve seen in months that didn’t receive a standing ovation, and are among the small few that deserved one. A full version of Osborne’s Angry Young Man play might have provided it. B+
(Tickets: Roundabouttheatre.org or 212-719-1300)