The Roundabout would never hire Ivo van Hove to go all regietheater on a classic, but let’s applaud the institution for doing the next best thing: It let Sam Gold hang a bold, brutalist frame around John Osborne’s 1956 wake-up wail, Look Back in Anger. I’m not name-checking Van Hove glibly; this staging owes a debt to the Dutch director who hulls chestnuts to the meat (such as The Little Foxes in 2010) and sets them in stark environments populated by actors prone to emotional and physical sadism. Osborne is a perfect fit: His “angry young man” Jimmy Porter (Matthew Rhys) is an overeducated middle-class sax player with an acid tongue and bottomless contempt for anyone within spitting distance. In cascading rants, he vituperates his Welsh mate Cliff (Adam Driver); his posh, long-suffering wife, Alison (Sarah Goldberg); and later, his mistress—Alison’s friend—Helena (Charlotte Parry), who also finds Jimmy’s invective irresistible.
It makes sense to give Look Back a stylized makeover (complete with deleted topical references and the elimination of a minor character). The content of the play—screeds against the ruling class, sexual repression and middlebrow English culture—thrilled the kids half a century ago; but form-wise, Osborne was just as conventional as Terence Rattigan, whom he supplanted. Andrew Lieberman constructs a direly foreshortened playing space (backed by a vast black wall) littered with flamboyant squalor (broken crockery, dirty clothing, newspapers and a bashed cabbage). The lighting is harsh. The acting is jazzy, sensual and dirty. Rhys is thrilling, with a great ear for his slashing speeches and a splash of Richard Burton’s whiskey growl in his timbre. Goldberg abases herself with perilous abandon. Parry is well cast as the flinty, arch Helena, and Driver continues to impress with his sly, boyish ardor. Jimmy’s misogyny and grotesque egoism are a lot more problematic than they were in ’56, but in this raw, exciting, heart-scorching revival, everyone goes down in the muck.—David Cote