British playwright John Osborne was quite fond of the word "maidenly." It comes up frequently in his autobiography Almost a Gentleman, usually in reference to people who don't understand his work -- such as the "maidenly" critics who saw the title character of The Entertainer as an unlikely, reprobate monster. The Entertainer, produced in 1957, was Osborne's second play; his first, Look Back in Anger, knocked Britain for a loop when it finally found backers in 1956. Both cemented his reputation as a brash, articulate anti-Establishment voice, leading Osborne to become the first of the literary "angry young men," a moniker later pinned to Joe Orton, Kingsley Amis, and Edward Albee. With its scathing view of British foreign policy, national character, and family life, The Entertainer won Osborne a new passel of "maidenly" detractors. It also gave Laurence Olivier one of his meatiest roles as seedy second-rate music-hall comedian Archie Rice.
Aurora director Tom Ross has pulled together a top-notch cast to depict three generations of the Rice family, each resembling a pot on the stove ready to boil over. London-based daughter Jean (Emily Ackerman, clipped, precise, and appropriately awkward) returns to her father's seaside home to lick her wounds after a dust-up with her stodgy fiancé, Graham. It's a weekend she regrets almost immediately. As the gin flows, her father, Archie (Charles Dean), announces his intention to divorce Jean's stepmom, Phoebe (Phoebe Moyer), so he can marry a young barmaid. Jean's half-brother, Mick, has gone to fight in the Suez Crisis. And the wolf -- in the form of the Inland Revenue -- is at the door.
In the face of impending disaster, Archie continues to mug his way through tired onstage material and toy with the limits of cruelty toward his family. Archie is reprehensible, yet we get flashes -- as when he starts to break down about Mick's capture -- of the desperation behind the mask. Charles Dean has exquisite facial control, rippling his lips and scuttling his eyebrows about mockingly, and he brings admirable depth to his antihero, whether he's taking a loose-limbed dance turn or taunting his wife and his father, Billy (the warm, voluble Edward Sarafian). Menace, avarice, cunning, pain -- Dean finds it and brings it unerringly forward.
Olivier was the first to play Archie, and he wanted his wife, Vivien Leigh, to play the broken-down Phoebe, but Osborne and director Tony Richardson couldn't stand to see Scarlett O'Hara mouthing Phoebe's lines. In Aurora's production the honor of Phoebe goes to Moyer, apparently one of the hardest-working women in Bay Area theater (she just did The Memory of Water in February and Over the River and Through the Woods in April.) Phoebe is a tremendously sad character, bound to Archie by habit and fear. "Whatever else you say, he was always good to me," she insists, and the transparency of the statement is obvious. If he was ever good to her, it was a long time ago. Phoebe is a lonely woman, broken down by the "birds" Archie brings home to "roger" in her sitting room, his verbal abuse, and the constant lack of money. Moyer, who this year has played strong, accept-no-grief women, takes a very different tack here. As Phoebe cries and abases herself, you just want to slap Archie for putting her through it.
American audiences familiar with television's All in the Family may see a certain resemblance between Archies Rice and Bunker, and there's a reason. All in the Family was producer Norman Lear's retread of the British series Till Death Do Us Part, which appears to have been influenced by Osborne and his milieu (Till Death Do Us Part scriptwriter Johnny Speight was a contemporary of Osborne's). Osborne paved the way for other writers interested in exposing Britain's postwar inertia and the barely contained rage of a generation, and Archie Rice (and his Look Back predecessor, Jimmy Porter) made it possible for audiences to accept an Archie Bunker -- a man full of wrongheaded notions about everyone, quick to abuse his wife, horrify his proper daughter, and malign immigrants, women, and gays.
Much of what Osborne had to say in 1957 seems far less shocking now -- in a time and place where politicians and royalty are openly ridiculed in every medium. Lines like Jean's "(Is) it really just for the sake of a gloved hand waving at you from a golden coach?," questioning the value of fighting for Queen and country, are not nearly as incendiary. As a result, we get to really appreciate Osborne's language, his careful ear for the rhythms and subjects of everyday speech, his memory for a turn of phrase. In fact, Archie's line, "Have you ever had it on the kitchen table?" is a direct quote from the lawyer Osborne hired to represent him in his first divorce. Many of Osborne's own concerns and fears are reflected in the dialogue: He feared becoming a "tax exile," he didn't want to leave Britain, and he was resolutely and loudly antiwar.
As the transitions between the music hall and the flat grow ever more subtle -- an effect nimbly aided by Jim Cave's excellent lighting design -- it becomes harder to determine whether the vaudeville parts are really happening, or if Archie is imagining them; if he is withdrawing steadily from the real world and his impending incarceration. Kate Boyd's set likewise breaks down the wall between Archie's onstage persona and his home life, with a middle-class sitting room placed between the audience and a gone-to-seed proscenium arch.
Time has vindicated John Osborne against the "maidenly" critics who huffed that his characters weren't real. In the second act, Archie says of his family: "Why, we have problems that nobody's ever heard of, we're characters out of something that nobody believes in. We're something that people make jokes about, because we're so remote from the rest of ordinary everyday, human experience." In Aurora's full-blooded production we see the patent falseness of such a statement, and understand how close our lives are to those of the Rices.
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