Look Back in Anger's 1956 London premiere was like a cabinet filled with precious bone china crashing to the floor of your stuffy Aunt Felicity's salon. Osborne's play about the anti-social resentment of its young, middle-class protagonist, Jimmy Porter, begat the phrase "angry young man" and launched British theater into a decade of unprecedented experimentation and thematic exploration. Noel Coward was out; the fringe was in.
There were far better British plays and far better British playwrights (John Arden's Live Like Pigsremains a largely undiscovered treasure of the period), but Osborne and his play were in the right place at the right time. Which is why it's quite customary for contemporary commentators to savage his play at every turn, deriding it as a classic example of a play that has failed the test of time. Most recently, in November 1999, The Village Voice's Michael Feingold, commenting on a New York production, said that sitting through the play, you can't help but be "baffled at the notion that it could have contained the seeds of an alleged theatrical revolution."
"Baffled" isn't the word that should be used in describing the Vanguard Theatre Ensemble's current revival of Osborne's drama. Shocked, stunned, flabbergasted and positively thunderstruck are far closer. If this production is to be trusted, Look Back in Angeris a wretched play—ponderous, inarticulate and as phony as the breasts on a Newport Beach trophy wife. It's creditable that a theater revisit such an important theatrical signpost. But when it delivers such a suffocating bore, you have to wonder whether any of it is worth it.
Clocking in at just over three hours, this is theatrical drudgery at its most cumbersome. Length isn't a problem unless it feels long. This feels long. In this production, time doesn't crawl so much as stop. Director Penelope VanHorne's pace has all the crackle of an afternoon at the DMV and all the momentum of a golf match. This renders the juicy, impassioned conflict among Jimmy; his long-suffering wife, Allison; their good-natured friend, Cliff; and her manipulative friend, Helena, completely unimportant.
What's perhaps most remarkable about this production is that it's eminently unenjoyable despite the fact that Ryan Lee's Jimmy is quite good. Jimmy is a great invention, a caustic prick drowning in his own bitterness who feels good only when he rips into people around him. Yet Jimmy is also keenly intelligent and passionate. Lee captures this charm and vulnerability without compromising the anger and frustration that made this character seem fresh in the ossified British theater of the 1950s.
Michael Hampton also contributes a solid performance as Jimmy's flatmate, Cliff, a decent guy who is obviously in love with his best friend's wife but would never think of acting on the impulse. Unfortunately, that's where the acting accolades end. Neither Patricia J. Francisco's Alison nor Paulette Kendall's Helena belongs in the same ring as Jimmy. Alison is quivering sobs, big eyes and telegraphed emotion; Helena seems to belong in an Agatha Christie thriller, with her pursed lips, bloodless exterior and the kind of stilted accent that makes one wish French were our mother tongue so we wouldn't have to hear phony British on our stages.
Because two of this play's four main wheels are so wobbly, the show never rolls. It doesn't feel alive, spirited or intense; it's an exercise in cheap, easy emotion and unclear objectives. It truly does make one look back in anger—for all the wrong reasons.
Look Back in Anger at the Vanguard Theatre Ensemble, 699A S. State College Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 526-8007. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m. Through Feb. 26. $15-$17; $2 off for students and seniors; $5 student rush tickets at curtain for every performance.