Sam Gold’s intermittently powerful off-Broadway revival of “Look Back in Anger” begins with the houselights up and a striking image of urban hell.
We see a narrow railroad flat littered with garbage, a stained mattress leaning precariously against a wall and a few pathetic sticks of furniture.
Extending only a few feet in from the lip of the stage, this is Andrew Lieberman’s squalid set in toto. With strong support from Mark Barton’s bleak lighting, it renders the claustrophobia of poverty palpable.
Jimmy Porter, who runs a candy stand (sweets stall, in British) lives here with his doormat wife Alison and best pal, Cliff. Jazz slices the night air and you can almost smell the trash they heedlessly toss about.
John Osborne’s 1956 play scorched London audiences acclimated to the better-manicured works of Terence Rattigan and Noel Coward. While most of the reviews were withering, the critic Kenneth Tynan announced that he doubted he “could love anyone who did not wish to see” the play.
Well, I could.
Jimmy is more than a figure of post-war British anomie, deadened by the past and frozen by a future that promises little more than Mutually Assured Destruction.
The play unfolds on consecutive Sundays, when Jimmy and Cliff lounge about reading and mocking the smug bourgeois sobriety of the Sunday broadsheets. That is, when Jimmy’s not abusing Alison.
He loathes her upper-class background and her spinelessness; when he topples a hot iron, burning her arm, he admits that he did it on purpose as Cliff valiantly tends the wound.
Alison rewards Jimmy with ever more fervent ardor -- even after a miscarriage and his casual betrayal with her actress friend Helena.
The Brits may have seen this nasty male fantasy as revolutionary, but in the U.S. it was already a trend (Osborne’s play bears more than passing resemblance to “A Streetcar Named Desire”) that critics could embrace.
No thanks. Whatever his gifts, Osborne lacks Tennessee Williams’s poetry and, more important, the generosity of spirit that make his flawed characters indelibly human. Osborne just gives us icons of bored fury.
Gold and his earnest cast don’t exactly make a fresh case for “Look Back in Anger.” As Jimmy, Matthew Rhys seems more remorseful than angry and there’s more chemistry with Adam Driver’s gangly Cliff than with Sarah Goldberg’s touchingly serene Alison. Charlotte Parry totters about in red spike heels as the transparently haughty Helena.
The director pumps up the sex, including the ambiguous horsing around between Jimmy and Cliff. The effort makes the play all the more implausible.
Through April 8 at the Laura Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th St. Information: +1-212-719-1300; http://www.roundabouttheatre.org/shows-events/look-back-in-anger.aspx Rating: **
What the Stars Mean: **** Do Not Miss *** Excellent ** Good * So-So (No stars) Avoid
(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)