Richard Grayson: Look Back in Anger at the Old Stone House

September 29, 2009


I am always thrilled when Richard Grayson, author of "Who Will Kiss the Pig" and "And To Think That He Kissed Him on Lorimer Street" and other titles from DUMBO Books, decides to share his thoughts with OTBKB readers:

We headed over to the Old Stone House in Washington Park on a dreary fall
Sunday afternoon to see a first-rate production of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger.

It
was precisely the play needed for a dreary Sunday, as it has three
crucial scenes set on dreary Sundays. But this drama's effect is the
direct opposite of dreary. It's explosive.

We
bought the Bantam paperback edition of the play from the old Bookworm
Bookstore on Flatbush Avenue near Church when it came out in 1967.

We stayed up one night and read the play in one long gulp.

The
book had amazing drawings of the scenes by Lee Gregori. But of course
it was Osborne's words, even a decade after they caused a revolution on
the London stage, in the mouth of his "angry young man," Jimmy Porter,
that so excited one 16-year-old boy in Brooklyn:

I've
an idea, why don't we have a little game? Let's pretend that we're
human beings and that we're actually alive. Just for a while. What do
you say?


The contemporary reaction to Look Back in Anger
is more respectful than enthusiastic. It's impossible, given the past
forty or fifty years, to recapture the response its got back in the day
when it seemed urgent, an emancipation of drama from the restrictions
of past generations, particularly in pre-Beatles, pre-mods-and-rockers,
pre-"cool-Britannia" Britain, but also in fifties America.

Even by the time we read it, we'd already digested – devoured - Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in which the emotional outbursts are even more extreme than the ones that are Look Back in Anger's most compelling moments.

The second floor of the Old Stone House is a great space for talks and the Brooklyn Reading Works
but it's not ideal for theater. Yet this production, directed fluidly
by Thomas Mulhare, managed to employ the space to maximum effect,
effectively using the intimacy; at several points, sitting on the
aisle, we could have reached out and touched the characters. Scene
changes, which could have been jarring, were handled adeptly in an
understated way with a character simply announcing them: "Two weeks
later."

The cast was uniformly superb. The dialogue written by
Osborne (for some reason, the program misspelled the author's name four
times, adding a superfluous U, as if it were labour, honour or colour
- but we guess it's great that that was our biggest quibble with the
production) contains a number of monologues that could lend themselves
to scenery-chewing. But here everything was controlled, restrained -
even at the moments of highest rage and passion.

Alex
Mills played Jimmy Porter with a vulnerability that made his sneering
and sadistic tirades directed at his wife Alison and the other
characters understandable. Mills' performance also emphasized Jimmy's
high intelligence and educated background, which serve only to feed his
frustration and bitterness and make him strike out at the world,
including those who – almost unaccountably but not quite – love him.
But he's also delighted with his own fury.

Yet it's hard in 2009
to take Jimmy's long, vicious riffs – like those against his despised
mother-in-law – with the kind of shock that it generated decades ago.
Look Back in Anger is one of those artistic works at the
vanguard of so triumphant a revolutionary change that its innovations
are impossible to discern for an audience who didn't live through its
initial reception.

Today it's hard to imagine how some of us were affected by Osborne's plays – we also loved The Entertainer – and other groundbreaking British novels, dramas and films of the time: Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey, John Schlesinger's Billy Liar, anything by Alan Sillitoe.

Our dad once came in as we were viewing Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner for about the seventh time one week on Channel 9's Million Dollar Movie
and said with a chuckle, "No matter how many times you watch it, he's
never gonna finish that damn race." So we were thrilled to have this
production come to the Old Stone House this weekend and delighted to
get this kind of quality theater for just a five-dollar donation.

There's
a tenderness in this Jimmy Porter that makes his unpleasant egotism
understandable but doesn't veer into mawkishness. Alex Mills perfectly
captured Osborne's stage directions' description of his antihero as "a
disconcerting mixture of sincerity and cheerful malice, of tenderness
and freebooting cruelty."

In the squalor of Jimmy's Midlands
flat – subtly suggested by a minimalist set, lots of newspapers
scattered about (we admit being distracted by their being New York
papers; maybe they could have gotten some London ones?) and a few
stuffy furnishings, including an old record player from which very
low-key background music which served the action of the play well -
Alison, his upper-class wife, at first seems out of place.

Played
by Katy Foley, who also was the producer here, this Alison seemed less
Jimmy's punching bag and doormat than someone who's somewhat willingly
taken on the role of wife as victim as a way of protecting the man she
loves from turning his anger on himself. That is, Alison here appears
very vulnerable but not bewildered; she's made her choices
deliberately, even though she may not be aware of it. In Foley's
portrayal, you can see why Alison is the squirrel to Jimmy's bear in
their stuffed-animal avatars on a side table.

As Helena, Ruby
Joy at first is outwardly brittle and somewhat manipulative, but in Act
Two – there was a ten-minute intermission – it's obvious that she wears
a protective armor and is also a lost soul, drowning slowly in what she
once thought were safe waters. She doesn't lack compassion, but for
Joy's Helena, everything else takes a back seat to self-preservation.

Daniel
Kemper excelled as Cliff and was in some ways the pivotal character in
this production. Jimmy's most ardent passion is devoted to his loyal
crony Cliff, who's fiercely protective of him despite the mutual
insults. Cliff is even more protective and tender toward Alison, whom
he's so affectionate toward – the choice made to begin the play with
Cliff and Alison in an embrace, as if they're having a furtive affair,
was brilliant – that it would arouse the jealousy of any husband except
Jimmy, who's incapable of jealousy.

Tolerant, patient,
self-deprecating, funny, acutely aware of his limitations and lack of
education, Kemper's Cliff is also quite needy, and we don't quite know
how to respond to his perfectly-delivered speech announcing that it
might be time for him to move on from Jimmy's sweet shop business and
his friends' menage; this character's motivations are in some way the
most complex in the play.

Like
Jimmy's working class English accent and the posher accents of the
other characters, Cliff's Welsh accent was effectively unobtrusive and
unaffected.

Dan Odell as Colonel Redfern, Alison's father,
gave an affecting performance as the representative of the
establishment, no caricactured Colonel Blimp but a man plagued by
self-doubt and second-guessing, as vulnerable as the young people,
distracted and bewildered by the ground shaking underneath Old
England's feet. In the way he muddles through, there's a sense of
decency about him, and Odell struck all the right gestures for a man of
his time and place.

Look Back in Anger
is a period piece today, and this production emphasized not its blazing
fury but the melancholy underlying the characters' lives. Osborne's
words, even the ones that seemed vulgar and brutal in 1956, now seem
elegaic and wonderfully poetic.

The sun was shining as we left the Old Stone House and we were really glad we got to see this production.

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