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
Having once described himself in a profile as a "neurotic New York Jew," Gold was born and raised in Westchester until the age of 15. He notes that he was half-joking when he used that term but "… what I meant was that I'm very self-reflexive, I think a lot about psychology, about myself, and I put that into my work. I think the word 'neurotic' really means the ability to pick at what's inside yourself and to use it in your work. As a director that means being able to look at it from the outside, unemotionally, even when these things are very deep inside of you."
His father, Jeffrey, is an investment banker and his mother, Lenore, is a painter. It was from her, he says, that he got his creative gene, which drove him as a youth to haunt museums, galleries and theaters. Smitten with the stage, he began to act and direct at Cornell as an undergraduate and then developed his skills at internships at Playwrights Horizons and the Signature and, eventually, through the directors' program at Juilliard. But what was most key was his three-year tenure as an assistant director and dramaturge at the Wooster Group, the experimental troupe under the leadership of Elizabeth LeCompte.
"I learned two things from Liz," he says. "She is uncompromisingly detail oriented and meticulous and I left there with a hubris that what I wanted to see onstage was what I had in mind and I couldn't stop short of that. And the other thing that really affected me was the extremely casual relationship she engenders between the audience and the performers. There is a lack of preciousness. They're not trying to hit a home run. And a lot of my work is about trying to marry that rigor with a sort of casual entrance into the storytelling."
Exhibit "A" is "Circle Mirror Transformation," which he developed over two years with Annie Baker (who will be providing the adaptation for his "Uncle Vanya" at the 73-seat Soho Rep later this year). "The actors were freaked!," he says of the long stretches of silence in a play set in a Vermont community center. "What were audiences going to make of it? Are they going to be bored? Are they going to revolt? We really didn't know. And while there were many people who ran screaming from 'Circle Mirror' — as I'm sure there'll be plenty of people who run screaming from 'Look Back in Anger' — there were just as many who stayed and connected with it."
The director says that he has listened to the laughter and witnessed the standing ovations that greet "Seminar," then walked down the street to "Look Back," where the reaction is more pained and muted. Gold defies and upends audience expectations, but he doesn't want to alienate an audience.
"How can I tell when I've crossed that line?" he says, musing. "The minute you start wondering that is when you start making safer choices to safeguard yourself against crossing that line. I have to trust my story-telling instincts. You try very hard to engage an audience but you can't fear them."