Saturday, June 28, 2008

Anger management

Orfeo's video preview for Look Back in Anger.

All art operates within its social context - on which it depends to a lesser or greater degree. El Greco, for instance, would be ravishing but baffling without our knowledge of Catholic myth, which has remained (fairly) fixed until the present day.

But what happens when the context of a work of art vanishes? One hopes the reputations of the great would somehow soldier on, if in some new form - clearly the whirligig of time is the crucible in which artistic gold is centrifuged from dross; the true masterpiece will eventually find a new context (indeed, at the very top of the artistic food chain - say with Shakespeare - the work generates its own future contexts). But the rest - even those hailed as "revolutionary" in their day, like The Weavers, seen earlier this year - inevitably slip unheeded into the dustbin of history.

And alas, it's hard to pretend the dustbin won't be the final destination for John Osborne's fifty-something Look Back in Anger, now at the Piano Factory through July 6, and for several reasons. The first is that Osborne didn't deal with his context - the suffocating landscape of postwar Britain - directly; he assumed it instead, and so didn't have to build a brand new dramatic model from scratch (as Beckett had a year or two earlier with Godot). Sans any new structure, Osborne treated his supposedly revolutionary subject by subverting the tropes of its stylistic antithesis, the soapy, Terence-Rattigan-like "well-made-play." In short, Osborne attempts to evoke lower-class social drama via middle-class domestic drama. It doesn't sound like a strategy that's going to withstand the test of time, does it - although to be fair, it did suggest the technique Pinter and Albee later deployed far more effectively (by subverting the well-made play not with politics but absurdity).

The second problem with Anger is that not only has its original context vanished, but a new context has arrived which maps well to its materials, but doesn't flatter either author or play. In the year of its premiere, the cruel beratings of his wife by the play's hero, Jimmy Porter, read as deflected fury at the upper classes; today they read as spousal abuse. Is Jimmy raging at the injustice of his society, or is he merely a misogynist and narcissist operating under the cover of raging at society? The play's effect depends on this question, but the productions I've seen, while trying mightily to convince me of the first interpretation, inevitably left me with the second. And the river of piss and vinegar running through Osborne's oeuvre - along with lingering questions about the author's sexuality (the obvious source for "Cliff" always maintained that he and Osborne were lovers, not friends) - does little to wash away that intuition.

It should be said, however, that the current version, an Equity Code production from the new Orfeo Group, does about as good a job with the play as the others I've seen (although it's not nearly in the same league as Orfeo's previous effort, last summer's Marisol). Director Gabriel Kuttner has trimmed the text here and there (he should have trimmed more - Peter Hall's drastically reduced version was reportedly more successful than the original), and has shaped the material intelligently, if not always incisively (it's his first directorial effort, and frankly, Look Back in Anger should be no director's maiden voyage). More problematic is that Kuttner has drawn thoughtful work from his actors, but hasn't dug deep enough to overcome the fundamental miscasting of his leads.

Said leads - Daniel Berger-Jones and Liz Hayes - are two of Boston's best young actors, and of course good actors are always looking to stretch beyond their inevitable "types;" that's only natural, and just what you'd expect from an Equity Code production, which is designed by and for its performers. Still, when both leads are playing against type, and what's more, against each other's type, let's just say crossed signals and missed climaxes tend to be the order of the day, however talented each actor may be. To grossly overgeneralize, the essential conflict in Anger is between the smart but sexily crude Jimmy and his gently refined, yet subconsciously smug, wife, Alison. He's earth; she's air. Yet Liz Hayes is obviously the earthier, more believably working-class of the two, with naturally practical smarts that she tries desperately to suppress in a quiet, passive-aggressive mode. Meanwhile Daniel Berger-Jones is indeed a hunk, but is also a physical thoroughbred; tall and in gym-trim, with a refined physical grace, he's the natural aristocrat of the two. Still, despite the fact that they really should have traded roles, they both have their moments; Berger-Jones is at his best when he drops his occasional histrionics in the third act and simply toys with Helena, his wife's "girlfriend" who replaces her in his bed. And Hayes brings a memorable intensity to her final scene, when she re-lives the horror (the loss of a child) that her husband had wished on her earlier (nice guy, huh).

Risher Reddick, Daniel Berger-Jones and Georgia Lyman get past their Anger.

The supporting players manage better, perhaps because, unlike their costars, they're nestled comfortably in their respective types. Georgia Lyman is the standout, I'd say, playing yet another "other woman" - she looks smashing in her dark hair and prim blouse, and her accent is spot-on; my only feeling is that her hatred of Jimmy (which morphs "unexpectedly" into lust!) should be played with more energetic attack beneath her upper-crust poise. As flatmate Cliff (the role that gave Alan Bates his start), Risher Reddick is likewise mostly on-target with a tricky mix of conflicting emotion, and his fisticuffs with Jimmy prove robust and believable. Still, his accent seems to hop the pond from Wales to Tara with surprising rapidity, and he sometimes seems to lose focus along with his character. He, like Berger-Jones and Hayes, flourished far more in Marisol - which, if anything, is a weaker play than Anger. One wonders if there's something about these actors that makes them seek out challenging roles in weak plays - if so, I'd say they're better off with the wacky fireworks of Rivera than the bitter Method of Osborne.

1 comment:

  1. All the same, I'm glad to finally see a production of this play live and for myself: Kenneth Tynan's "Curtains" has several articles (and his review) on how much this play affected the English theatre landscape. I'd love to do-- any actor my age would love --his no-holds-barred "Inadmissable Evidence"; but, in the end, it's another one of those knockout roles in a lesser play.

    Late in life, Osborne wrote a book of essays called "Damn you, England", which could reflect either his feelings as a young man or as a forgotten older one.

    A number of his compatriots' plays should get an airing here -- Arnold Wesker's plays, for example; and a virtually forgotten writer named Nigel Dennis, whose "One-Way Pendulum" was a revue of the "All in the Timing" variety; he also wrote "The Making of Moo", about how easy it is to start a bogus (and bloody) religion in the third world; and, most interesting of all, "Cards of Identity," about how the English identifying themselves with their jobs to the point of losing their own identity.

    I seem to remember, reading Tynan's reviews, that John Osborne acted in the last two of these plays as well.