Jimmy Porter, the pissed-off young man in John Osborne’s seminal 1956 drama “Look Back In Anger,” shocked British auds and dealt a death blow to the well-made play. The groundbreaking kitchen-sink drama still has shock value in Sam Gold’s meticulous revival — surprisingly, not so much for its raging social criticism of postwar British values but for the ferocity of its Strindbergian attack on a sado-masochistic marriage. Well matched as the smoldering Jimmy and his punching-bag wife, Matthew Rhys (“Brothers and Sisters”) and newcomer Sarah Goldberg battle it out to a draw.
Set designer Andrew Lieberman appears to have taken his cue from a line in the play that describes the Porters’ squalid one-room flat as “a very narrow strip of plain hell.” Translated literally, the playing area is reduced to a sliver of stage in front of a looming back-wall painted black and devoid of visual definition. In this confined setting, the characters can only stand or squat or slouch against the wall — which pretty much sums up the limited dimensions of their lives.
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Like a wild beast locked up in a very small cage, Jimmy Porter (Rhys) expresses his discontent in angry roars directed at his browbeaten wife, Alison (Goldberg), a pallid blonde who fights back in classic passive-aggressive style — by ignoring him. To ease the monotony, Jimmy directs portions of his unending diatribe to his long-suffering friend, Cliff, played with disarming gentleness by Adam Driver.
Rhys fails to tap into the depths of rage that threaten to transform this angry man into a dangerous one — the Jimmy Porter who scared auds out of their wits in the 1950s (a period well evoked by David Zinn’s costumes). Thesp does succeed, however, at what may be the harder job of making Jimmy sympathetic, even likable, to modern-day auds.
Character is a working-class lad with a good brain that earned him a college education but no prospects in rigidly class-structured postwar Blighty. Osborne gives him the intelligence and the vocabulary to voice his snarling complaints against society in a rough but eloquent idiom that Rhys delivers with good grace.
Problem is, Osborne sets it up so that Jimmy directs his many grievances, even his legitimate ones against a society with “no beliefs, no convictions and no enthusiasm,” exclusively at his wife. As Alison tells it, she became “a sort of hostage” that Jimmy kidnapped from the privileged social classes he despised.
Goldberg (who has a career in England and makes her New York debut here) gives well-bred Alison the backbone and the stiff upper lip to resist Jimmy’s furious onslaughts against her family, her friends and her own character with a wall of silence that drives him crazy. But his relentless badgering is so cruelly sadistic that he loses claim to being a social critic and is better defined as a wife batterer.
Curiously, Osborne hasn’t given Jimmy much in the way of sex appeal, which makes his domination of Alison less than credible. The sexual dynamic must also be taken largely on faith when Alison is replaced in this hellish relationship by her friend Helena (in a nice crisp perf from Charlotte Parry).
More than a half-century since he first threw back his head and howled in rage, Jimmy Porter is still a fearsome spokesman for the have-nothing classes. But there’s nothing ennobling about that righteous anger when it’s directed at the wrong targets.