We Americans may have thought we created the Angry Young Man. You know, that volcanic, vital, articulate stud who howls a lot. We've got tons of them, from James Dean and Marlon Brando, to Sean Penn and Holden Caufield.
So it might come as a bit of a shock when you show up at the Laura Pels Theatre and are reminded that the Angry Young Man actually first started off with a British accent. On that stage is one of the first — Jimmy Porter, the dark hero of John Osborne's play "Look Back in Anger," which has been revived in a visceral production that opened Thursday by the Roundabout Theatre Company.
Jimmy is not fun to live with: He browbeats his flatmate, terrorizes his wife and seduces her best friend, all the while spitting out invective and railing about the upper classes. He's a hyper-intelligent and pugnacious hurricane of anger.
"I've an idea. Why don't we have a little game? Let's pretend we're human," he tells his friend and wife, sarcastically. "Oh, brother, it's such a long time since I was with anyone who got enthusiastic about anything."
To Jimmy, only he is truly human. To Jimmy, we're all asleep, living life in a daze. To Jimmy, only his experiences have value. Played with detached relish by Matthew Rhys, Jimmy is repellant and yet somehow irresistible. He roughhouses and throws food and always wants a cup of tea or strict silence to listen to the radio.
"Really, Jimmy, you're like a child," says his wife Alison, played with deep vulnerability and suffering by Sarah Goldberg. Her family is posh but she's fallen in love with Jimmy and now walks about a hovel in dirty feet ironing his clothes.
How you react to Jimmy may depend on where you are in your life: His charms likely decrease as audience members get older. But he was a genuine revelation when he first appeared in 1956 at the Royal Court Theatre in London, a working-class Hamlet striding across a stage that until then had largely depicted only life among the idle rich. Jimmy was a strident voice of defiance against postwar England, though it's never clear if he has any solution other than yelling. Here was the birth of kitchen sink realism.
The Roundabout is having quite a bit of luck this season finding dusty English plays that resonate today. Their revival of Terence Rattigan's "Man and Boy" reminded many of Bernard Madoff's massive fraud and "Look Back in Anger" comes just as Americans are debating class differences.
Osborne's play was said to have helped usher the decline of playwrights like Rattigan as a new generation emerged of brash young writers, armed with their ready condemnation of the generation before them and socially charged ideas. One person who bridges this gap is the terrific actor Adam Driver, who has been in both Roundabout productions.
In "Look Back in Anger," Driver's Cliff is a patient Welshman equally fond of Jimmy and his wife — "a no-man's land between them" — until his patience is tested. The cast is rounded up by Charlotte Parry, who plays a terrific Helena, a friend of Alison's and a potential rival to Jimmy, but she soon collapses into his arms.
Osborne's play is no masterpiece — primal screams often aren't — and there are serious problems with the plot. Helena's too-easy turnaround is unexplained, unless girls always like bad boys is a reason, and Cliff desperately needs more flushing out. But the secret language every couple shares, the strained marriage at the heart of this story and the portrait offered of disaffected youth are all striking.
This production pushes the intimacy of the play by sacrificing the depth of the stage at the Laura Pels Theatre and putting the action in front of a black wall with only a few feet for the actors to maneuver.
That adds to the narrowness of the space these lower-class characters inhabit — The men even sometimes swing their legs over the stage's lip, getting in-your-face — and Andrew Lieberman's set is the definition of grubby and squalid: trash strewn about, discarded newspapers and sad metal chairs. It's the kind of apartment Stanley Kowalski would love if he was left alone.
Gold bravely — and fittingly — breaks with theatrical tradition to colonize an exit door in the auditorium, and allows his actors who are technically offstage — but clearly visible — to wait near the stage between scenes.
The final moment of this three-act play is beautifully touching in its return to a childishness after so much arguing. Whether or not Jimmy has learned anything about how horrid he has been by the end is debatable, though.