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Stage Door: Look Back In Anger

02/10/2012 12:33 am ET | Updated Apr 10, 2012

When John Osborne's Look Back In Anger, his dramatic slam at his first marriage was staged in 1956, the English were stunned. The sight of a woman at an ironing board in a squalid flat was greeted with boos. As Jimmy spewed his contempt-filled rants at wife Alison, most critics and audience members were horrified.

What saved it, in large part, was powerful critic Kenneth Tynan, who championed a new realism in British theater -- and the era of the "angry young men" was born. The play's revival, now at the Laura Pels Theater, is a strong piece, but a mixed bag for Americans, who have little reference of post-war England or the nuances of class prejudice.

Jimmy's (Matthew Rhys) tirades against the middle-class underscore his unique post-war problem: He's a working-class British boy with a university education but limited prospects. He bemoans the loss of the "great causes" worth fighting for and attacks a system that favors the status quo.

Between rants, he works at a candy stall with his friend Cliff (Adam Driver), who lives with him. Despite his emotional abuse -- he dubs his wife (Sarah Goldberg) ''pusillanimous" -- Jimmy is attractive to women. Both Alison, whose odd silences speak volumes, and her friend Helena (Charlotte Parry), an actress who encourages her to leave her tempestuous husband, are drawn to him.

While Look Back has some passing similarities to A Streetcar Named Desire, this is a poor-man's version of the William's masterpiece. It has ample class warfare and sexual heat. What it doesn't have are the layered themes or poetic insights that made Streetcar so compelling and enduring.

Still, audiences will appreciate the powerful performances: As Jimmy, Rhys is a lithe tiger, waiting to pounce. He's amazing to watch, while Goldberg beautifully captures Alison's frustrations and longings. The scene where she chops vegetables, underscoring her domestic woes, is masterful. Similarly, Driver and Parry, drawn to and repelled by the Porters, are terrific.

Sam Gold has skillfully staged Look Back In Anger against a black wall; the space is dirty and cramped -- the lone wail of a trumpet punctuates the cycle of despair. The director has trimmed elements of the original play, zooming in on the dysfunctional love relationships. However dated, it retains its power to disturb, bolstered by an excellent cast.