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Look Back in Anger - Off-Broadway

Matthew Rhys stars in John Osborne's classic drama.

Brothers & Sisters Star Matthew Rhys on Channeling Love and Rage in Look Back in Anger

Brothers & Sisters Star Matthew Rhys on Channeling Love and Rage in Look Back in Anger
Matthew Rhys in 'Look Back in Anger'
It’s about two people who try desperately to communicate, but just miss each other.

As Jimmy Porter, the caustic, charismatic lead character in John Osbourne’s Look Back in Anger, Matthew Rhys is on constant alert, ready to lash out at his young wife, Alison (Sarah Goldberg), and a pair of interlopers in their garbage-strewn flat. For his New York stage debut, Rhys has abandoned the stylish suits he wore as gay lawyer Kevin Walker in TV’s Brothers & Sisters in favor of work pants and shirts carefully ironed on stage by Jimmy’s depressive bride. Tackling this 1956 British classic (which opens at Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theatre on February 2 ) is a dream come true for the 37-year-old Welsh-born actor. Since graduating from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Rhys has played Romeo for the Royal Shakespeare Company, been seduced by Kathleen Turner in the West End’s Graduate and mastered his American accent on TV. The decidedly un-angry star recently chatted with about marriage, stage acting and the place he considers home.

How does it feel to be making your New York stage debut?
It’s a little terrifying, because it’s been seven years since I was on stage. But to be doing this part, in this play, in New York City has been a great ambition of mine for many years. So I’m like the cat that got the proverbial cream.

Is it true that you discovered Look Back in Anger through Richard Burton’s [1959] movie version?
It was my favorite movie as a teenage boy.

Really? What did you see in it as a teenager?
An amalgamation of things. It was the first time I saw a play in movie form, and I was captured by that. I wasn’t a big theatergoer as a child, but I was aware that this wasn’t a movie movie. There were these people stuck in a room, and there was this incredible dialogue and vocabulary, especially from Jimmy Porter. I thought, “Who is this person?” And it was my first introduction to Richard Burton, so I was like, “Wow, Welsh people can leave Wales and make movies." [Laughs.]

Jimmy is an intense character. How do you get in touch with that deep-seated anger?
In a way, it’s very easy. For me, Jimmy’s anger comes from his frustration. He has a deep desire to communicate with his wife, which he can’t do; he’s not emotionally equipped. His way of communicating is to shout and scream, which doesn’t work.

What’s your take on Jimmy and Alison as a couple?
I think there is a genuine love and need and attraction between the two. There has to be, otherwise the play is about abuse, and I don’t think that’s very interesting—nor is it true. The element that hinders them is their class. She is from an upper class, which, especially in the ’50s, was famed for not having a wide emotional vocabulary. There’s a reason why “stiff upper lip” was such a well-used phrase. Jimmy is from a lower class, and there seems to be an honesty and a directness in the way they speak, but ultimately he fails in communicating as well. At the end of the day, it’s about two people who try desperately to communicate, but just miss each other. That, to me, is the heart of the play.

Movies like Revolutionary Road and Blue Valentine continue to tap into our fascination with couples who can’t figure out how to be happy.
Absolutely! It’s easily relatable for a wide degree of us, when there’s a relationship where you can’t quite fathom why you are with the person, but there’s this strange, enormously deep-rooted attraction that you can’t make logic of in any sense. So you just thrash it out until it exhausts itself.

This production has a playing area at the front of the stage that looks three feet wide. What’s that like?
It’s actually about five and a half feet. Rehearsals were terrifying [laughs]. The initial few days of standing on it, you’d get vertigo. Sam [Gold, the director] explained the concept really well. When the curtain originally came up in 1956 on this squalid little flat, there were gasps from the audience. The realism of the set, and also hearing Alison speak with an upper class accent while ironing in this squalor, gave the piece a shock value that we could never replicate. Sam wanted the audience to feel slightly discomfited coming into the auditorium. Then, when the actors come in, he wanted that element of claustrophobia—that we are literally on top of you.

Let’s talk Brothers & Sisters. Your TV husband, Luke MacFarlane, did The Normal Heart, and now Rachel Griffiths is on Broadway in [series creator] Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities. Everybody’s in New York.
Yes, it’s fabulous. Ron Rifkin [Saul] is a New Yorker, and Sally [Field, Kevin’s mom Nora] is spending a lot of time here, which is wonderful. Sally is coming in to see the play this week. It’s very nice to keep up with the family.

Were you proud to be part of a series that was way ahead of the curve on gay relationships?
Absolutely. I remember reading the pilot and being so surprised, although when I found out it was Robbie [Baitz’s] work, it made sense. From the get-go, we were very clear that my character wasn’t defined by his sexuality in any way; it wasn’t an issue. There’s no “coming out” story. He was a lawyer who just happened to be gay; the brother who just happened to be gay. The simplicity with which the show approached it was wonderful.

Has your experience on Brothers & Sisters and now Look Back in Anger affected your view of marriage?
All good drama is based on conflict, so if you’re in a marriage on stage or television there’s going to be conflict. I’ve gotten used to that.

So, you’ve never come close to getting married yourself?
No, much to my mother’s despair [laughs].

Your TV fans might be surprised to know that you've played Romeo on stage. 
Yes, I did 18 months with the Royal Shakespeare Company in a loop of three shows. I played Romeo and Macduff [in Macbeth] and Edmund in King Lear. It was a great honor to play Romeo, but I have to be honest: I always looked forward to doing Edmund. I loved the sort of open darkness of that part.

You played Benjamin opposite Kathleen Turner in The Graduate. Tell us the truth—what was she like?
Fabulous, in that sort of brassy, ball-kicking way. If you didn’t step up with your A game, she would let you know. She works hard and plays hard, and she expects you to do the same. And if you don’t, woe betide you [laughs]. That was huge for me: a West End theater, in an iconic piece, coupled with someone like Kathleen. It was the first time I had sunk my teeth into a project of that size and caliber.

What should people know about Wales, your home country?
It’s an incredibly warm, welcoming place. I miss it enormously. Apart from friends and family, I miss the people, and simple things like the landscape itself. It’s very green, very lush, because it rains a lot. It’s a country that takes great pride in its culture. The performing arts are revered and encouraged from an early age, so that was a great stepping stone for me. L.A. is where I pitch my tent, but I’ll always regard Wales as home.

See Matthew Rhys in Roundabout Theatre Company’s off-Broadway revival of Look Back in Anger at the Laura Pels Theatre.

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