In "Look Back in Anger," playwright John Osborne's brutal 1956 drama, the working-class antihero Jimmy Porter attacks his wife Alison, by accusing her of being "pusillanimous."
In their garbage-strewn Midlands flat, the disaffected young man cruelly barks out its meaning: "Wanting of firmness of mind, of small courage … cowardly."
"Pusillanimous" is a word one would hardly associate with Sam Gold, the ambitious 33-year-old director of the Roundabout Theater's revival of the British classic, which stars Matthew Rhys, most recently of the TV drama "Brothers & Sisters."
The audience's unsettled reaction is evident at a recent matinee performance: the audible dismay at Jimmy's callousness toward his pregnant wife, his contempt for her posh female friend, and the continual baiting of a buddy. The visceral quality of the production is due to the radical decision by Gold and set designer Andrew Lieberman to confine the action to the narrow lip of the stage by walling off the rest of the usual playing area. The actors remain practically in the audience's lap throughout. The front rows tend to duck when the crockery and goods go flying.
"This is a hard play to swallow," Gold says. "It divided audiences and critics then. It was a fight and I wanted to honor those very strong feelings. I thought that if the audience was implicated in the storytelling, it would help get at some of the danger in the material. Otherwise why do it?"
The critics were divided this time around as well. "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," Linda Winer wrote in Newsday, while Charles Isherwood of the New York Times found the production "torpid."
Gold's off-Broadway take on "Look Back" comes on the heels of his acclaimed Broadway debut last fall with Theresa Rebeck's comedy "Seminar," starring Alan Rickman, which continues to do well at the box-office. (Jeff Goldblum is scheduled to replace Rickman, who leaves the show April 1.)
Critical reservations have been rare in Gold's rise as one of New York's hottest and busiest young directors, ever since the media hailed his subtle and effective production of Annie Baker's "Circle Mirror Transformation" at Playwrights Horizons in 2009. When Gold reprised that production, with a different cast, at the South Coast Repertory early last year, Los Angeles Times critic Charles McNulty praised it as "pitch-perfect" and the director as someone who "listens attentively to subtextual murmurings."
Then last August, the director returned to Southern California to mount Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning "August: Osage County" at the Old Globe, and Margaret Gray, writing in the L.A. Times, compared his dexterous handling of the domestic minefield on three playing levels to that of a "Cirque du Soleil choreographer."
While Gold's "choreography" for "Look Back" has his actors dodging debris on the Porters' "narrow strip of hell," Rhys says it was more complicated to navigate Gold's cultivation of "a sense that anything can happen onstage."
"The house lights are up at the beginning of the play, the music is very loud, the emotions are intense, it's so claustrophobic — all that made us feel incredibly uncomfortable, vulnerable and open," Rhys says. Yet the director "justified his choices, especially the ways the characters relate to each other. And he was able to do that because his approach to life and relationships is so original."
Gold looks like the brightest kid in the class as he sits in a midtown office, with horn-rimmed glasses and unruly mop of hair. His restless energy is reflected in the sheer breadth and versatility of his career, from a puppet musical, "Jollyship the Whizbang," to classics like "Threepenny Opera" and "A Doll's House," to any number of new plays by Zoe Kazan ("We Live Here"), Dan LeFranc ("The Big Meal," which he will direct at Playwrights Horizons in March) and Will Eno ("The Realistic Joneses" at Yale Rep in April).
For the moment, however, that creative intensity is eclipsed by impending fatherhood. He and his wife, the playwright Amy Herzog ("After the Revolution," "4,000 Miles"), are expecting their first child. The baby is due on May Day, ironic insofar as Herzog's autobiographical plays deal with her Socialist-leaning family. His choice of plays has often paralleled in a "sadistic" manner the opposite of his life experiences — difficult marriages, divorce, failed pregnancies, Gold says. "So I think there must be something going on in my subconscious that is not OK," he says with a laugh. "Something very twisted somewhere inside me that I'm not really ready to acknowledge yet."
A creative gene