The Entertainer, Illinois Theatre Center. Twenty years before the Sex Pistols, playwright John Osborne was screaming the punk anthem: No future! Bursting on the scene in 1956 with the furious Look Back in Anger, Osborne followed it up in 1957 with The Entertainer, once again focusing on a handful of people being smothered by England's stagnant postwar economy. This time he threw into the mix a right-wing music hall performer, Archie Rice, whose life is a metaphor for England's decline. The son of a music hall star, Rice has been reduced to the role of an emcee at a strip joint but maintains his stiff upper lip and superpatriot ways. Significantly, Osborne set the play during the Suez Crisis, which showed the world that Britain was no longer an empire.
The Entertainer is a work of great subtlety and wit--or it is when it's directed and performed properly. Sadly, the Illinois Theatre Center production is not. Under Etel Billig's awkward direction, the actors blunder in and out of scenes and deliver Osborne's smoldering dialogue in dull tones that convey none of his passion. Robert Browning is a particular disappointment as Rice: supposed to be the quintessential conservative showbiz narcissist (think Reagan, or better yet, George Jessel), Browning is too brittle to be charming and too flat to be a man as contradictory and full of unfathomable problems as mother England.