Review: “Look Back in Anger” (Redtwist Theatre)

Lucy Carapetyan (Helena Charles), Joseph Wiens (Jimmy Porter) Photo by Jan Ellen Graves
Lucy Carapetyan (Helena Charles), Joseph Wiens (Jimmy Porter)
Photo by Jan Ellen Graves

Show:  Look Back in Anger

Company: Redtwist Theatre

Venue: Redtwist Theatre

Die Roll: 18

When John Osborne wrote “Look Back in Anger” in the 1950s, he pushed the boundaries of what contemporary British audiences would accept in the way of hyper-realistic theatre.  Over 50 years later the play isn’t forward-thinking; it isn’t boundary-pushing.  It is a product of its time, even if it was ahead of its time at the time (How many times can I type the word “time”?).

A story about an emotionally and physically abusive man and the two women who get involved with him, the play is set in a cramped attic apartment that is inhabited by Jimmy Porter (played by Joseph Wiens) and his wife, Alison (played by Baize Buzan).  Jimmy is an angry man who seems to feel that the world hasn’t lived up to what he wanted from it, and that he’s owed something from it.  He hates all people of means (including his in-laws).  He spends most of the play shouting vitriolic invectives at his wife or the across-the-hall neighbor, Cliff Lewis (played by Japhet Balaban).

Were I to ever write a textbook on the quintessential way to be an abusive, sociopathic spouse, I would use Jimmy Porter as a primary example.  There is nothing redeeming about that character.  He really is a point for point embodiment of wrongness.

So, why do this show?  It is a really long, immersive adventure through being badgered and battered.  It is monologue heavy, and most of those monologues are really rants, at best.  We are told by other characters that Jimmy is an intellectual, but he does little and says little that proves this in any way.  In fact, he proves to be nothing more than an immature man-boy and a bully.  On paper, at least, the character goes through almost no change at all from beginning to end.  And no one around him goes through much of a change at all, either.  His wife leaves him, and in doing so becomes the one character that goes through some character development, but we don’t see the majority of her struggles, because she spends most of the 2nd act off stage.  Her best friend, who eventually takes up with Jimmy immediately after Alison’s departure, does so with little explanation and upon Alison’s eventual return makes the equally baffling snap decision that what she’s been up to in the meantime is wrong and that she must leave immediately after a months-long relationship with Jimmy.

I have a theory that the appeal of doing this play right now is because there are some parallels with the millennial generation.  We’re looking at young people who can’t find work, or at least satisfying work, who largely hold that fact against the generations prior.  We also get to see abuse in action, and that is always topical.

Even though I don’t enjoy the play itself as a work of art, I do consider it a work of art.  It makes the audience feel.  Basically it makes you feel a bit like you’re a victim of abuse, too.  At least for the first act.  And Wiens does a fine job of being the unsympathetic abuser.  The question that I have is whether he is intended to be unsympathetic.  If we are to empathize with him at all, then the goal was likely missed.  I know that we’re supposed to see the character as a broken individual who is struggling, but that level of depth isn’t there.  All the characters are very surface-level only.  One exception is Larry Baldacci as  Colonel Redfern (Alison’s father), who portrays an aristocratic Brit who is coming to terms with the fact that the world isn’t the place he once knew.

Clocking in at just under 3 hours, the show is an effective museum piece for those who are interested in what realism was like when it first shook up the London stage.  For those wanting the grit and muscle of a good, modern bit of realism, I would look elsewhere.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Angry young man feels wronged by society’s demands upon him.

RATING: d8  – “Not Bad,  Not Great.”

Review: “Ithaka” – InFusion Theatre Co.

ITHAKA: Nick Freed and Meredith Rae Lyons (Photo by Cole Simon)
ITHAKA: Nick Freed and Meredith Rae Lyons (Photo by Cole Simon)

Show:  Ithaka

Company: InFusion Theatre Co

Venue: Chopin Theatre

Die Roll: 4

Another week, another play that claims ties to classic Greek myth.  At its heart, ITHAKA by Andrea Stolowitz is a play about one woman’s journey.  One that is both literal and figurative.   Lanie, a veteran of the recent war in Afghanistan, is played by Meredith Rae Lyons as a woman with emotional walls firmly entrenched to keep others at a more than safe distance while she struggles with inner torments that came back with her from the war.

At first Lyons’s portrayal is off-putting and alienating, but then, it should be.  She truly captures what it is to be a person out of place.  Her reactions to those around her are not able to be understood by those who haven’t shared the experience, and that includes the overwhelming majority of the audience.  What we can identify with is the reactions of those around her.

Once Lanie has hurt or shoved away her former friends, the neighbors, and her husband (played by Nick Freed), she hits the road.  Her journey is prompted by the arrival of fellow former marine Evie (played by the very charismatic AnJi White).   The road trip is the journey starting here.  The emotional one toward healing of the guilt carried within Lanie doesn’t really start until later.

That I think is one of my main concerns with this play.  The script itself doesn’t really get going for a while.  And when it does, it only does so half way.  Finally, when it reaches the starting point of both journeys, the play is nearly half over.  It feels like the script is spinning its wheels.  While it’s clear that Lanie is at that point, the script ought to not be crafted to do the same.  Otherwise we’re left wondering why we should care about the main character.  We’re not shown her previously positive life with her husband, so we’re not saddened by its loss.  The interaction between Bill (the husband) and Lanie could have been stronger, more caring, more vulnerable from the male side, thereby giving us something to root for, but that isn’t there.

Director Mitch Golob did what he could with the piece and admirably kept it from being a long series of glances at my watch (although a periodic one was still unavoidable).  The design concept depended heavily on a large rear-projection screen that functioned as a cyclorama and almost the entire set of the play.  That simplicity was a solid foundation for the complexity of the images projected upon it.  Both the images themselves, and the timing of them were really well executed, and while reviews seldom mention the work of the stage manager, I would be remiss if I did not.  Tara Malpass Brabant, I salute you!  You had your hands full running the lights, sound, and projections for this show.  The scene changes occasionally lasted longer than the scenes in between, but again that’s a failing of the script in this case.  The attempted cinematic style of jumping scene to scene made we wonder if the playwright might have fared better by writing a screenplay.  Very few of the scenes benefited from being on stage.  The scenes that contained inherent theatricality were some of the most alive.  AnJi White returned in the second half of the play as the embodiment of Lanie’s now-deceased pet cat.  That turn of events can only happen on stage, and it shined as one of the plays strongest moments, as did Lyons’s intermittent stand-up routines, which broke the fourth wall with some success.

When a play is compared to the Odyssey, both in promotional pieces, and within the play itself, one starts to look for similarities and to draw comparisons.  At least one tries.  The thing is, there aren’t any similarities, per se.  The one exception is the physical journey.  I guess one could make an argument that a 72-hour stay in a psych ward might be the equivalent of the lost years on the island with Calypso.  If that’s the case, then the night nurse Jacob (played convincingly by Andrew L. Saenz) is the surrogate for the Ogygia-bound nymph.  Saenz brings a truthfulness to his character which makes this detour on the voyage the most believable and effective.  Sadly the rest of the journey doesn’t really measure up to the epic tale to which we are inevitably called upon to compare it.

Also, the journey remains incomplete.   Once we discover the point of the journey (seeking forgiveness for the death of a comrade) one must look back and wonder why we were introduced to the husband character at all.  Unlike Odysseus’s journey, Lanie’s does not end with a return to her beloved.  It ends abruptly and with as little explanation as most of the rest of the play, which leaves the whole thing feeling incomplete.


TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Damaged war vet seeks healing forgiveness.  Why is Odysseus here?

RATING: d8  – “Not Bad, Not Great”