Back in the U.S.A.: Jo Bonney Directs Osborne's Classic at CSC

Special Features   Back in the U.S.A.: Jo Bonney Directs Osborne's Classic at CSC
On first glance, it hardly seems to be a match made in heaven.
Reg Rogers in Look Back in Anger.
Reg Rogers in Look Back in Anger. Photo by Photo by Dixie Sheridan

On first glance, it hardly seems to be a match made in heaven.

The combination of the archetypical angry-young-man-play Look Back in Anger (currently playing at Classic Stage Company) and director Jo Bonney -- known primarily for her work as a collaborator with solo performers Eric Bogosian (including Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll and Pounding Nails Into the Floor With My Forehead) and Danny Hoch (she directed Some People and his acclaimed follow up, Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop) -- is, to the outside observer, a bit of a stretch. On one side we have a chestnut of a play (admittedly a bitter-tasting one) that, mostly through the rants of its main character, Jimmy Porter, turned the British theatre world upside down in the 1950s. On the other, there's Bonney, whose work has a hyper-kinetic quality that one really can't help but associate with the '80s and '90s. There's a feeling of newness to her style, combined with a sharp intelligence, an edginess and a sense of spontaneity that doesn't seem to jibe with Osborne's condemnation of Britain's post-war, complacently bourgeois society.

Or does it? Tapping into the underlying jazz rhythms of Osborne's text, and aided by a relentless bravura performance by Reg Rogers as Jimmy, Bonney's production walks a delicate tightrope; managing, on the one hand, to faithfully evoke the sun-setting-on-the-British-empire cynicism of Osborne's text, while simultaneously taking a new, modern angle at some of the components of the play -- most notably the female characters, who suddenly have a authentic quality that always seemed to be lacking, at least in the printed version of the play.

"I guess there were conflicting motivations," says Australian-born Bonney when asked why she took the directing gig at CSC. "When I read it, I responded to the emotional core of the play. I didn't know how relevant it would be to an American audience in 1999, at least on a political level. But it's emotionally messy, and that was really attractive to me."

Although Bonney's claim to fame is directing solo performers (she's been working with Bogosian, to whom she's married, since his 1983 piece FunHouse), she's quick to point out that she's been doing plenty of "traditional" directing work lately -- most notably the acclaimed production of Diana Son's Stop Kiss at the Public Theater last season, as well as a recent production of Bogosian's play subUrbia at the Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C. "I don't find it to be that much of a stretch," she says. "The solo stuff I've done with Eric and Danny has been character-based work. I'm interested in bringing out three-dimensional characters, and there's not much difference whether there's one or five people on stage. So, working on a `play' doesn't shake me up; if anything, I like it more."

That said, one of Bonney's main tenets when working on a piece, whether it's with Hoch, or a more traditional playwright like Son, is that she behaves as much as a dramaturg as a director. "I've always been very involved with the script process ; rehearsal can be as much about working with the writer as the actors. So, I tend not to do classic pieces." As may be expected, Bonney had to shift gears ever so slightly with Anger, since Osborne hasn't been around West 13th as of late.

"It has a reputation of being a flawed script," Bonney admits. "It's not done very much and it's definitely the product of a 26-year-old writer [Osborne's age when it was originally produced in London]. Now, I don't necessarily think it's flawed, but I did like the challenge. If it was produced today, there would be some editing -- even Kenneth Tynan, when he originally reviewed it, said that it was X number of minutes too long.

"Of course," she adds with a laugh, "he also said that he could never love anyone who did not want to see this play. And I feel the same way. You may be inclined to trim it, but the fact is that everything is very tightly linked -- references that come up early on in the play come back to haunt you later on. In that way, the play is like a snake eating its tale."

Though Bonney may have a newfound career as a "traditional" director, she's not leaving new forms behind. As soon as Anger is up and running, she jumps into Universes, a collection of spoken-word pieces that will be presented at P.S. 122 in November. And after that, goes into a lengthy rehearsal process for Anna Deavere Smith's new one-person exploration of the press and the presidency, House Arrest, at the Public Theater, which is slated to open next spring. The Deavere Smith piece has been brewing for almost four years and has gone through a number of critically panned incarnations at a plethora of regional theatres during the last two seasons. (Deavere Smith originally envisioned it as a large-cast show.)

"George C. Wolfe and Anna got together and decided that I would be helpful," Bonny says with characteristic modesty. "I never saw the ensemble version of the piece, so I'm not coming in with any preconceived connotations. I do think that the subject matter is fascinating," she continues. "I'm interested in seeing how we can use the media as a second character on stage and exploring how the press defines the American character."

And what of her collaboration with her husband? "There's a new piece that we've been working on with the working title Wake Up and Smell the Coffee. It's much different from most of Eric's work in that it's much more stream-of-consciousness and focuses on language, rather than being character based. We've worked on it off and on for about a year and a half in a really fragmented way. It's been difficult because our schedules have been impossible. But I think it's a strong piece and I really hope we can do it at some point. I don't want to see it just fade away -- I'd be so sad."

--Stephen Nunns

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