BOTTOM LINE: An ensemble approach to John Osborne's searing 1956 play, which is more traditionally seen as a star vehicle for its two lead actors. The company deserves credit for the innovative effort, although the production is far from perfect.
Brandon Walker, Artistic Director of The Seeing Place Theater and the lead actor in that company's current production of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, merits respect as a man of strong convictions who is not merely willing but eager to defend his unorthodox approach to the theatrical process in the face of overwhelmingly contrary conventional theatrical wisdom. Thus, in a program note, he states that:
"It is unfortunate that theater history calls this show a star vehicle for Jimmy (and maybe Alison)....As far as I'm concerned, this story has never been told from a group perspective. That is what we have set out to do. There's no reason why this isn't also Cliff's play or Helena's play – even the Colonel has one very major scene."
Jimmy Porter (Brandon Walker) is a passionate, over-educated, under-employed, working-class, angry young man in a dead-end job, married to Alison Porter (Anna Marie Sell) an upper-middle-class passive woman who shares none of his anger or enthusiasms. Jimmy's good friend, Cliff Lewis (Adam Reich), who is inordinately fond of Alison, shares their quarters. Alison's childhood friend, Helena Charles (Adrian Wyatt) visits for an extended stay. When Alison discloses to her that she is pregnant, Helena encourages Alison's father Colonel Redfern (Rick Delaney) to extricate Alison from her relationship with Jimmy and Helena becomes involved with Jimmy herself.
This play can be appreciated on several levels. As an angry polemic against the class system. As a precursor to the sexual revolution. As a gritty rejoinder to the typical polished drawing room comedies that proliferate on stage. As a veiled reference to the homo-erotic bonding between male friends. And, notwithstanding Walker's misgivings, as a "star vehicle" for outstanding actors.
Indeed, I think that Walker is wrong and theatrical history is correct; I believe that the reason that this story has never been told from a group perspective before is because it does not lend itself to that kind of an ensemble approach. To be sure, Cliff, Helena and the Colonel all play important supporting roles but that is just what they are: supporting roles. This play belongs to Jimmy and Alison.
Within the context of what The Seeing Place Theater has attempted, all of the actors, including Walker, perform their roles competently, so it is not they who should be faulted for failing to deliver soaring performances.
Unfortunately, the risks inherent in the collaborative approach struck with a vengeance in this production (albeit through no fault of the company's own). The actor originally slated to play the role of Helena became unavailable just days before the play was scheduled to open, necessitating a last minute replacement. This was accomplished: Adrian Wyatt stepped in to play the role but with insufficient time to learn her lines, she was forced to refer to the book she held throughout the opening performance. Obviously, this would be a problem for any actor coming in to assume a role at the last moment in any play, but how much more difficult must it be for that actor to perform in a production which, by design, relied on the organic evolution of an ensemble team to extract the meaning of the play – rather than a direct understanding of what the playwright had written – which, of course, is just the situation obtained here. Wyatt never had the opportunity to evolve her role in concert with the other members of the company. Under the circumstances, she cannot be blamed for that and probably deserves praise for the job she did.
(Look Back in Anger plays at The Seeing Place at ATA's Sargent Theater, 314 West 54th Street, 4th Floor, between 8th and 9th Avenues, through October 30, 2010. Performances are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8pm and Saturdays at 2pm. Tickets are $18, and $15 Students/Seniors, and are available at www.smarttix.com or by calling 212.868.4444. For more show info visit seeingplacetheater.com.)