LOOK BACK IN ANGER, Writers’ Theatre Chicago, and LOOK BACK IN ANGER, Floodlight Theater Company, at Strawdog Theatre Company. When John Osborne’s play opened on May 8, 1956, it shook the British theater establishment to its roots. Set in a dreary one-room flat without running water and filled with unlikable characters–a verbally aggressive protagonist, his mousy wife, her predatory best friend–it’s saddled with a plot so messy, digressive, and pointless it could pass for real life.
But more than 30 years later, the play seems positively gentle, not to mention a bit slow–especially as it’s performed by the self-indulgent young Floodlight Theater Company. Mostly recent grads of the University of Chicago, they turn every beat and comma in Osborne’s script into an opportunity to show off their acting, putting unnecessary pauses in lines, stretching out significant moments so far that they manage to extend the play–which usually comes in at about two and half hours–to three hours, ten minutes.
Doran Schrantz shows just the sort of restraint needed as the long-suffering wife, but even her fine performance needs editing. Elisabeth Naughton gets credit in the program for direction, but I didn’t see any evidence that she did anything but smile and nod while her out-of-control cast turned a classic into a bore.
Writers’ Theatre Chicago’s production of the same work shows how to make an old play new again. It’s not just that director Michael Halberstam has packed his show with excellent actors: Thomas Vincent Kelly, Jen Dede, Michael Nanfria. From the production’s first moments, Rick Paul’s wonderfully cramped set and the bluesy notes of Barry Bennett’s sound design make it clear that Halberstam has very specific ideas about Osborne’s characters. As the play’s protagonist, Kelly is given plenty of room for his trademark high-spirited rants, but his speeches never turn into a harangue, nor do we lose sight of the fact that he has some legitimate beefs. Likewise Dede’s performance as the wife never becomes so quiet and masochistic that we lose respect for her: we must believe in her assertion of adult responsibility, which may save both their lives–and their marriage.
Most important, Halberstam keeps the play moving, a choice that not only makes Osborne’s kitchen-sink cliches less obvious but gets us out of the theater in a mere two hours, 20 minutes.