Thursday, October 14, 2010

Off Off Broadway: Look Back in Anger

Last night, I attended The Seeing Place's opening night performance of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, a play which I generally enjoy.  Unfortunately, this company's non-traditional ensemble approach to this play just didn’t work for me.

Brandon Walker, Artistic Director of The Seeing Place Theater and the lead actor in this production, 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). I don’t care how good Kenneth Haigh or Richard Burton or Mary Ure may have been. 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.”

Digging in his heels even deeper, Walker describes the play as “a forgotten relic, which is often dismissed because the protagonist is long-winded or because you can tell John Osborne wrote it in 14 days. It’s not the kind of polished play we’re used to seeing.”

And in a separate press release, describing how The Seeing Place Theater’s work differs from that of other theater groups, he writes:

“Some call us crazy. We spend a good deal of our rehearsal processes not doing the play. We remove the text completely at the beginning....We improvise our way through the situations of a play until we are telling the same story as the playwright...But once our story begins to have the same shape as the playwright had intended, we start adding the lines. It isn’t until the final week or two that our productions begin to take the shape that the audience will see.”

Well, that all sounds very principled, courageous and non-conformist and I suppose it is but I am largely in disagreement with Walker’s philosophy of theater and unfortunately, much of what has been attempted in this specific just doesn’t work (or at least it didn’t work for me.)

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 in calling this show a star vehicle for Jimmy and Alison and 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 is not Cliff’s play nor Helena’s play nor the Colonel’s (notwithstanding his one major scene) and we shouldn’t forget it. This play belongs to Jimmy and Alison.

Moreover, I surely wouldn’t call this play “a forgotten relic, which is often dismissed because the protagonist is long-winded or because you can tell John Osborne wrote it in 14 days.” It was, after all, nominated for three Tony Awards including Best Play; it was made into a major motion picture starring Richard Burton, Claire Bloom and Mary Ure; it was extolled by Kenneth Tynan as "a minor miracle” which displayed all the “qualities one had despaired of ever seeing on the stage” and by Alan Sillitoe who wrote that Osborne "didn't contribute to British theatre, he set off a landmine and blew most of it up"; it was revived in an ambitious off off Broadway production by Clout in the Mug Productions only six months ago; and, call me naïve, but if I were seeing it for the first time, I should never have imagined that Osborne had written it in just two weeks.

Within the context of what The Seeing Place Theater has attempted, an ensemble production of Osborne’s play, 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. But if theater history is correct in seeing this show as a "star vehicle" for Jimmy and Alison (as I think it is), then Walker’s performance, in particular, falls far short of what one might have hoped to see.

Additionally, I guess you’d have to include me among those who do think it “crazy” for a theater company to spend much of the rehearsal process not doing the play, removing the text completely at the beginning, improvising its way through the situations of a play until it’s telling the same story as the playwright, and only then adding the lines, so that it isn’t until the final week or two that a production takes the shape that the audience will see. I imagine that it is at least possible that such an approach could work for some plays, but I don’t think it can work for plays for which words and language are as important as they are for Look Back in Anger.

And, unfortunately, the risks inherent in that 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 which 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 but, all told, it might have been more prudent to postpone the opening night.

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