Antic humor camouflages the deep-seated fury of Ben Woolf’s Angry Young Man. Woolf, a youthful English playwright, has created a Swiftian satire, funny on the surface with plenty that’s disturbing underneath. The play is filled with surprises and notable for its narrative vigor. As performed by four exuberant farceurs, this theatrical romp feels far fleeter than the actual 80-minute running time.
Currently receiving its American premiere in a presentation by Urban Stages, Angry Young Man was produced previously in London in 2008 and at the 2012 Adelaide Fringe Festival in Australia, where it was named Best Play and received the Advertiser citation for Best Show Overall. In the wake of President Donald J. Trump’s executive orders limiting immigration in the United States and the resulting public protests of those orders, both the play and Woolf’s dramatic indignation feel fresh and just minted.
Angry Young Man chronicles the misadventures of Yusuf, an early-career surgeon from an unnamed Middle Eastern country. Eager to escape the political tensions of his homeland, Yusuf is in London for a job interview at St. Mary’s Hospital, Hammersmith. He’s equipped with an honorable military record, medical-school credentials, and ample clinical experience; and he dreams of forging a productive new life in a democratic, morally enlightened country.
Things go wrong from the start. With his imperfect command of English and no notion of London geography, Yusuf promptly loses both his way and his life savings. Like Pinocchio, he falls under the influence of false-hearted companions, landing in one outlandish pickle after another. His odyssey leads “deep into this green and pleasant land, past dark satanic mills, out of the city and into the heart” of what Yusuf quickly comes to feel is an “anarchic nation.” But even penniless and stranded in the English countryside, the sweetly trusting Yusuf -- as much Candide as Pinocchio -- resists the idea that there’s any malice in the treatment he’s receiving at the hands of the Brits he encounters.
The cast of this production consists of two men and two women (the London and Adelaide engagements had an exclusively male cast). All the actors—Christopher Daftsios, Rami Margron, Max Samuels, and Nazli Sarpkaya—play Yusuf at various times, and also embody a host of other characters.
As individuals, these actors are superb physical comedians; as a foursome, they’re a well-calibrated ensemble, operating in the manic traditions of Beyond the Fringe, the Marx Brothers, and the Three Stooges. Their vocal capacities are impressive: they create singular voices for their many characters; and putting lips close to a live microphone, they emit an abundance of convincing sound effects (engines, weather, and creaking hinges, for instance). And, from time to time, they burst into a cappella song.
Director Stephen Hamilton keeps the action moving at breakneck speed around the tiny stage (and, eventually, into the behind-scenes area which scenic designer Frank J. Oliva unveils to clever effect). The performers pass their roles—and, especially, the part of Yusuf—back and forth among themselves with the grace and finesse of the Harlem Globetrotters handling a basketball. The on-stage frenzy, with mistaken identities, quicksilver changes in emotional temperature, and new characters constantly turning up, could easily confuse a spectator; but Hamilton and his cast ensure that the wacky, tangled narrative stays clear and the dramatic personae are distinct.
Sixty years ago, critics and audiences applied the moniker “angry young men” to a handful of English writers—notably John Osborne, John Braine, and Colin Wilson—who depicted the dissatisfaction of working-class characters in a postwar culture that afforded them more education than in earlier times but little or no social and political clout. An English playwright of today can’t call his work Angry Young Man without evoking those post-World War II literary figures and, especially, Jimmy Porter, protagonist of Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and poster child of the angry-young movement.
The societal tensions of England—and of the entire western world, for that matter—have shifted profoundly since the 1950s and ‘60s. By putting Yusuf in Jimmy Porter’s hot seat, Woolf’s comedy suggests that refugees, immigrants, and non-native citizens are now scapegoats for the ill-feelings of all society’s strata (as members of the “proletariat” were once punching bags of the privileged). Yusuf, like Candide and Pinocchio, is a fairly jolly protagonist. Woolf, on the other hand (despite the glittering humor on the surface of this play), is an impatient playwright who has channeled his social conscience in a satire, reminiscent of the dark political comedies of Dario Fo, that speaks to painful issues of our ever more “globalized” world.
Angry Young Man plays through April 9 at Urban Stages (259 West 30th St., between Seventh and Eighth avenues). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. Matinees are 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. No evening performances March 29 and April 5. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111 or visit www.urbanstages.org. After its Urban Stages engagement, Angry Young Man will have a three-week run at the John Drew Theater at Guild Hall in East Hampton, New York.