Look Back in Anger
By John Osborne
Directed by Reesa Graham
Featuring Rick Delaney, Adam Reich, Anna Marie Sell, Brandon Walker, Adrian Wyatt
The Seeing Place at ATA Sargent Theater, 314 West 54th Street, 4th Floor
production web site: http://www.seeingplacetheater.com/
October 13, 2010 — October 30, 2010
Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
October 15, 2010
- Jimmy: “Do the Sunday papers make you feel ignorant?”
- Jimmy: “Anyone who doesn’t like jazz has no real feeling for music or people.”
- Cliff: “I pity all of us”
Look Back in Anger is boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets another girl, boy loses girl two and girl one returns. Along the way a male friend neighbor moves away and a pregnancy ends. All set among educated but perhaps underemployed twenty somethings in Britain after World War Two. A play that spoke to a generation and blew the cobwebs off traditional forms (and language) of play making, and a play that shows that it was written quickly and crafted a bit predictably and that relies all too much on the shock value of using ordinary rough language and emotionally abusive interactions to be a piece for the ages. Edgy, angry, poor (though educated — there is pondering of the word “pusillanimous” at one point), percussive — playwright John Osborne‘s characters inspire thoughts of an episode of Seinfeld absent any of the charm or humor. We are in these lives, seeking sense as the characters are, in a theatrical adventure evoking a time (not quite clearly enough, but the clothes of the women are fabulous) and the lives of a few individuals. The content of the play by design is nothing more complicated than a modern-day soap opera or telenovela. So all attention is then directed to the nuances of character, the crafting of scenes, the sequence of stage moments, the essence of being of each actor on this little stage on the fourth floor of an old building on 54th Street. This is a play out of the Western canon that ought to be brought out for a turn at regular intervals and addressed seriously with dramaturgy, performance, balance. And this young company in its inaugural production year has gotten a few things quite right and some others a bit wrong.
Osborne in the play’s initial act has turned Noel Coward‘s Design for Living on its head. Design for Living was written by Coward for himself and his great friends Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne about an upper class heterosexual married couple and a second man who has relationships with each spouse. In Look Back in Anger, Jimmy (Brandon Walker) and wife Alison (Anna Marie Sell) live in a Midlands attic apartment with frequent visitor neighbor Cliff (Adam Reich) who is smitten with Alison. Jimmy pesters Alison over minutiae such as how she irons (and I have a few points to make on that score, see below), and there is talk about Jimmy’s jealousies, and there is humor and temper in close living quarters. Warmth but no sexual dalliance is suggested between Alison and Cliff, though Jimmy is always jealous we are told. Alison’s old actress friend Helena (Adrian Wyatt) blows through town to visit while in a role, and stays on to literally occupy Alison’s bed and place at the ironing board for a few months after Alison leaves when Jimmy reacts poorly to her announcement that she is pregnant. All our characters are educated — there are references to University and references to Alison’s upper class family. Jimmy owns a sweets shop; employment status for the others is unclear. We have generations between historical eras. Alison’s father the Colonel (Rick Delaney), who enters the play to gather her up at the early stages of her pregnancy, is untethered as a vestige of a bygone era — a British officer who left England in 1914 at the beginning of the First World War to serve in India and returned in 1947 to a world he didn’t recognize. Jimmy observes with sardonic humor how this feels for a young British man coming into the 1950s atomic age: “It’s pretty dreary living in the American Age. Unless you’re American of course.”
Jimmy and Alison are given smart quip-y dialogue. On the page one might imagine a young woman of privilege being entranced by a creatively unhinged character like Jimmy. Quick mind, unfocused. And yet, these particular performances don’t allow for us to see the chemical attraction in this team. Sell’s Alison enchants — draws the light in, draws our attention in, a wound and a wonder. Walker’s angry scamp Jimmy achieves insouciance and nastiness but not the roiling anger, the pent-up fury, the wounded boy left fatherless as a child and who loses his remaining parent before the end of the play. The layers aren’t there so the balance doesn’t draw us in despite the fact that Jimmy has many of the best lines in the script.
Dramaturgically, a number of questions arise in this production. One involves the specifics of the rhythmic references to music hall vaudeville pieces such as “have you seen Nobody” deep in the second act — these could be referring to Bert Williams‘ famous vaudeville act and tune, or to something else. The delivery was monotonic from Jimmy the amateur musician. It is unclear whether we are to believe that Jimmy is not good but aspires, or feels the music without the skill to perform it. And a small issue that becomes a big issue due to its role in this particular play and the pervasiveness of the action: the ironing of shirts. Ironing is key to the stage action for both women who are part of this cast. Yet neither woman demonstrates the ability to iron with any skill at all. This is striking and distracting for this play that focuses on the minutiae of daily existence in general and on this action in particular — unless we’re to see these characters specifically as not skilled at housework, which is perhaps a subtle point to be making in this context. Some rehearsal on this basic skill and using an actual hot iron during the scene would greatly increase its power. It should take only a few minutes and a few key iron strokes per shirt with no scrubbing at the fabric (a particularly aggravating action made by Sell’s Alison throughout her ironing session). In the 30 minutes or so that Alison spends ironing in the beginning of the first act, for example, a decently skilled person with an iron could complete at least 5 shirts and probably more. And that ironer would hang the completed shirts on hangers, not fold them up as Alison does. A small detail, but lackadaisical and clearly not real ironing is a serious distraction in a first act that has some solid moments.
Director Reesa Graham moves bodies on and off but doesn’t create the tension between characters that makes this drama pop. Sell and Wyatt (even though partially on book due to her late entry into the production) are moving as the women who join the orbit of sad and angry Jimmy. Reich’s Cliff is silent and competent and moves on — is never felt in these performances to have been any real connection for Alison.
So in the end, with the exit music of “All of Me”, an audience member might justifiably ask: where have we been? This young company is taking on important work, including Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty in this first production year. It may be worth watching them find their stride.
[10/17/2010 addition: From its first production, this play inspired strong responses. Here is the great Kenneth Tynan’s reaction to the play as published in The Observer, Sunday 13 May 1956: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/1956/may/13/stage]
© Martha Wade Steketee (October 17, 2010)