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REVIEW: ‘Look Back in Anger’ rebooted for today

lookback010312_optMatthew Rhys stars as the angry young man in a stylized revival of a British classic

BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
NEWJERSEYNEWSROOM.COM
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW

England’s classic Angry Young Man of “Look Back in Anger” fame has been duded up into a 2012 sort of rebel by director Sam Gold in his striking new production of John Osborne’s landmark drama.

Opening on Thursday at the Steinberg Center, Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival presents a sharply stylized account of Osborne’s 1956 play regarding the miserable times and fraying marriage of disaffected Jimmy Porter, who verbally spews his frustration all over his loved ones.

The bitter immediacy to Gold’s version is startling. With the play’s ‘50s details pared back, Osborne’s aimless young people of yesteryear are revealed as being kin to the Occupy Wherever crowds of today. Stark visuals, knockabout action and bold performances also give a contemporary feel to what’s usually staged as a moody period piece.

Purists no doubt will be irked by the edit job on the text that eliminates one character entirely and reworks three acts into a two-act format. Obviously this rendition is not your father’s (or grandfather’s) “Look Back in Anger.”

Rather than furnishing a realistic set with its requisite kitchen sink for Jimmy’s grubby little apartment, Gold and designer Andrew Lieberman situate the action entirely across the lip of the stage. Inspired by their chum Cliff’s description of the warfare of Jimmy and Alison’s marriage as being waged along a “very narrow strip of hell,” this bleak, claustrophobic setting – tightly backed by a bare, black wall – is liberally strewn with trash and dirty dishes. lookback020312_opt

There, the vituperative Jimmy is portrayed by “Brothers and Sisters” star Matthew Rhys with sufficient bad-boy appeal to remove some of the curse, if not the raw edge, from this famously irascible motor-mouth. The whining nature that makes Jimmy such a potentially tiresome figure is not at all evident in Rhys’ charismatic performance. Tearing into Jimmy’s torrential rants, Rhys hurls his contemptuous words with admirable vocal variety and flavorful Welsh inflections that call to mind Richard Burton.

Sarah Goldberg gives her blond, bruised Alison a mildly posh accent and a weary gentility that responds warmly to whatever few moments of kindness come her way. She and a brawny Adam Driver’s genuinely nice guy of a Cliff demonstrate an easy physical intimacy even as the frequent and extended roughhousing between Jimmy and Cliff suggests a modern-day bromance.

Sleekly and brightly dressed by designer David Zinn in a pencil skirt and red heels that contrasts with everyone else’s sloppy attire, Charlotte Parry coolly depicts the visiting outsider Helena as trouble in more ways than one.

Absent from the action is Colonel Redfern, Alison’s courtly father, who normally appears in one scene to mourn for Britain’s sweeter times. I can’t say he is much missed from Gold’s production, which reboots the drama not so much as a romantic triangle but as more of no-holds-barred wrestling match among the sexes.

Vividly punctuated by the director with bursts of be-bop music, outbreaks of physical violence, lingering silences and deepening shadows, the play still remains unhappy in its overall emotions but at least this spirited, tumultuous approach overrides the self-pitying quality that often tends to make “Look Back in Anger” such a woeful occasion.

“Look Back in Anger” continues through April 8 at the Steinberg Center for Theater, 111 W. 46th St., New York. Call (212) 719-1300 or visit www.roundabouttheatre.org.

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