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'Look Back in Anger' suffuses '50s heat

Sarah Goldberg and Adam Driver in the Roundabout

Sarah Goldberg and Adam Driver in the Roundabout Theatre Company production of “Look Back in Anger,” at the Pels Theatre in Manhattan. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

When "Look Back in Anger" exploded onto the tidy London stage of 1956, John Osborne's first play kicked off the "angry young men" era of British theater. Too late for war heroics and overeducated for their class, the characters bounced hard against limited options with bored contempt for the rich, the threatening H-bomb and the woman liberated for sex but not for power.

There are powder-kegs of fury in director Sam Gold's galvanic, comfortably erotic, nasty revival, not to mention four incisive actors cutting deep into the hyper-articulate verbal and body language. After more than a half century of dirty-talk social drama, however, the play seems less about society's angry men than the theater's lost boys -- restless wanderers caught between the sexual tension of "A Streetcar Named Desire" and the scary masculine elusiveness of Harold Pinter.

So, yes, the politics feel like old news and the harshness toward the two women makes it impossible, finally, to care about Jimmy Porter, the sullen, brilliant, working-class fellow who runs a candy shop instead of a jazz band. On the other hand, how captivating, for much of the time, to see this play through the expressionistic close-ups of Gold's emotionally complex lens.

Instead of Jimmy's realistic flat, the action takes place on a long, narrow strip of stage -- a corridor, really, stretching from nowhere to nowhere else. Matthew Rhys, the Welsh-born actor best known here from "Brothers & Sisters," makes a compelling New York debut as an attractive, quick-thinking Jimmy, whose appeal drains with his savage cruelty. Rhys even plays fine smoky jazz trumpet.

Sarah Goldberg has a classic '50s blonde quality as his wife, a rebel from the upper-middle class, but she often talks too fast to be understood. Adam Driver has enormous pumped-up sweetness as the pal who lives with them, and Charlotte Parry has an uninhibited posh confidence as the wife's duplicitous friend.

Gold tries to empower Osborne's oppressed women with more interesting mystery, having them wear silk underwear and pearls while ironing. There is a lot of primal sex teasing and homoerotic roughhousing, which almost explains what keeps these people from leaving or killing each other. Porter famously complains that he was "born out of time." The play doesn't find a new time, but this one is time well spent.

WHAT "Look Back in Anger"

WHERE Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th St.

INFO $71-$81; 212-719-1300;

BOTTOM LINE Dated politics, galvanic emotions


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