Heroes, Inc. Ensemble

at Lifeline Theatre

When John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger premiered at London’s Royal Court Theatre 32 years ago it created a sensation. It was a firebrand, igniting the dry, lifeless theater scene of postwar England. In terms of craft, it was hardly innovative–basically just another drama about adultery, staged in a conventionally realistic style. But the main character, Jimmy Porter, captured the public interest by lashing out against class structure, Edwardian values, cultural stagnation, social complacency, and anything and everything that he felt oppressed by. Jimmy Porter became England’s angry young man a good couple decades before Johnny Rotten stomped onstage.

The plot is simple. Jimmy Porter, a young lower-class intellectual, doesn’t manage to suffer his indignation silently. His relentless ranting annoys his friend Cliff, and the abuse and sarcasm Jimmy dumps on his middle-class wife, Alison, eventually gets under her skin. Alison, who has concealed her pregnancy from Jimmy, goes home to Mummy and Daddy and miscarries. Meanwhile, Jimmy plays house with Alison’s friend, Helena, but then that falls apart too. In the end, Jimmy and Alison get back together, but it’s not exactly an occasion to break out into song.

What this summary doesn’t capture is Osborne’s deliciously vicious invective. This is a polemical play, crammed with angry denunciations of a number of social and political conventions that may or may not have meaning for us in the here and now. So, in spite of some inspired writing, the issue of relevancy is at stake. Which leads to the question, is now the right time for a revival of Look Back in Anger?

Hell, any time is a good time. This is a good play. Granted that it’s dated. Nowadays, in our enlightened era, men don’t expect the women to do the ironing while they’re out bringing home the bacon. And the inertia of the Edwardian era hardly ever pisses us off anymore. But as far as I know, people still feel trapped by marriage, and the excess baggage of yesteryear still retards our progress into the future. Any time is a good time to call our oppressors by their improper names.

The problem is that without some good acting this play, like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, can devolve into an exhausting, none-too-enlightening bitchfest. Everything depends upon a subtle yet dynamic characterization of Jimmy Porter. Otherwise, Jimmy appears merely negative and judgmental.

Well, it becomes apparent early in the first act that Edward Billings isn’t the angry young man for the job. Billings hasn’t internalized his character and, many times, doesn’t even seem to understand what he’s saying. Jimmy’s tirades, therefore, break down into unmotivated, unexamined word salads, delivered in a voice that would sound whining if it weren’t so patently sonorous.

Direction, too, is lacking. It wasn’t ten minutes into the show before I found my attention drifting to relatively unimportant details. I noticed what a super job Alison was doing on those shirts, and with an antique iron, no less. Then I toyed with the idea of recasting the role of Jimmy with Robert Smith (who plays Cliff). By intermission I realized that the majority of my impressions were about what the play could have been, rather than about what it was. It seemed as if Tammy Berlin’s direction were standing in the way of, instead of enhancing, my appreciation of the play. I mean, OK, a well-ironed shirt can be a wondrous thing, but the highlight of the opening scene of Look Back in Anger?

It’s nearly impossible to review this production without discussing what’s missing: anger, first of all, and depth. Jimmy rails against this, that, and the other thing with equal intensity and little discernible reason. Sure, he’s mad, but why? If this play is to rise above the level of Look Back and Bitch, there has to be some tension and attraction between the characters. For instance, Jimmy’s radical mood swings, particularly between the affection and abuse that he shows Alison, are inexplicable, like the behavior of an undermedicated schizophrenic. And the moment when Helena suddenly grabs Jimmy and kisses him, and Jimmy responds, comes out of nowhere like a traffic accident. Most of the shallowness and clunkiness of the production can be traced back to a fundamental mistake in Jimmy’s characterization: he is wholly self-absorbed. The real Jimmy Porter is egocentric as hell, but hardly self-absorbed; the root of his anger is intimacy.

As it turns out, the most exciting and unaffected scene is between Cliff and Helena (Robert Smith and Fiona Lewis). This is the confrontation scene, shortly after Helena engineers Alison’s separation from Jimmy. Smith provides the fireworks here, as Cliff, provoked by Helena’s meddling, erupts suddenly from his usually tolerant and passive attitude. Helena tries to hold her own, but you can see her measuring the distance between herself and Cliff, wondering whether to shove or back off.

Robert Smith gives the best performance of the evening. He not only manages a consistent Welsh accent, but he seems to have thought his character through, especially Cliff’s way of humbly acknowledging his own limitations. Cliff has a bass note to his character–a way of being or, rather, a way he likes to be–from which only outside agitation can rouse him. Fiona Lewis is also pretty good, though less engaging. She knows who Helena is, and can express Helena’s qualities, but has a hard time relating to other characters. Lewis’s Helena responds better to events than to people.

Overall, this production has the feel of college theater, and not very well studied college theater at that. John Osborne’s name was misspelled in the program, twice. Further scrutiny of the program revealed that most of the cast recently graduated from college. And a list of the patrons of Heroes, Inc., showed substantial financial support from company members’ parents. I don’t mean to make fun of that, and I can fully appreciate the difficult transition from academic to professional theater. But life is tough, and it takes something more than a simple love of the theater to mount something as ambitious as Look Back in Anger. Or, as Jimmy Porter says when he throws Helena’s naivete back in her face, “‘Deep loving need’–that makes me puke.”