Home / Theater Review: Awake and Sing! by Clifford Odets on Broadway

Theater Review: Awake and Sing! by Clifford Odets on Broadway

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“All of the characters in Awake and Sing! share a fundamental activity: a struggle for life amidst petty conditions.” Clifford Odets, in his introduction to Awake and Sing! (1935).

This is what stage naturalism (in the sense first advocated by Zola) does best, the depiction of human beings in the context of their larger environment, their behavior and motivations shown as the products of social forces.

I was distressed to hear Michael Riedel on his PBS TV show Theatre Talk dismiss, in passing, Lincoln Center’s mounting of Awake and Sing! as catering to “spinster theatre.” (An odd epithet for this very emotive Jewish family drama.) The remark was made while interviewing David Hare, and the larger point was theatres would rather do such “chestnuts” than more “relevant” political dramas like Stuff Happens.

Oh how soon you are forgotten, Odets, once dubbed in the NY press as “revolution’s number one boy”! For it was his conceit (and that of the adventurous Group Theatre who produced him) that representing on the Depression-era stage the plight of the Berger family from the Bronx was just as political an act as showing us the backroom dealings of Bush and Blair. The surprise in store to the Riedels out there is that Awake and Sing! — when enacted truthfully and at full-force — still grabs you by the collar more than occasionally, reminding you of the price of materialism, of an inhuman society, and, yes, even of war.

Granted, the play hasn’t been helped over the years by timid regional revivals, clueless college productions, and, frankly, the over-romanticizing by some of our elder theatre colleagues of the Group aura in general. To those jaded by such experiences, I especially commend Bartlett Sher’s freshly considered and rigorous revival, where nostalgia is replaced by a genuinely affecting melancholy of “life amidst petty conditions.” Even in its oddest and least successful choices — especially in the scenic conception — there’s not a lazy or clichéd note to the whole evening. If all our classics were produced with this much care, we would be a healthier theatre indeed.

The production also reminds us that Odets wrote for some of the greatest stage actors this country has ever known (i.e. the Group Company) and that nothing wipes away the taint of “datedness” from his scripts like good acting. His powerfully loony locutions (part Yiddish, part gangster) sound dated only in the mouths of lackluster actors. Sher’s casting makes all the “dif” here, as Odets says. Especially in the two runaway roles, the sensitive tough guy — and WWI amputee WWI — Moe Axelrod (Mark Ruffalo) and the domineering warden of a mama, Bessie (Zoe Wanamaker).

Lest any doubt Ruffalo has been spoiled by Hollywood, here is a reminder of what first captivated audiences and critics about him in Kenneth Lonnergan’s early stage work. (Lonnergan, of course, being one of many American dramatists bearing the Odetsian influence in his love of the poetry of the New York streets.) Ruffalo handles Odets’ language effortlessly (dare I say “naturalistically”) fully internalizing its big emotions. I say “internalizing” because this is a surprisingly quiet performance, not scene-stealing bravura. But his intensity and truthfulness is always highly tangible. The result is a very warm Moe, a romantic, not just a “heel.”

Wanamaker likewise modulates the given extremes of her dynamic character. Even though Odets may at times seem to write Bessie as the Jewish Mother From Hell, Wanamaker doesn’t show us a witch, but neither does she sentimentalize her as some generic suffering immigrant matriarch. This is just plainly a very sad, disappointed adult, clinging to the ideals society has taught her. (“Here without a dollar you don’t look the world in the eye. Talk from now to next year – this is life in America.”)

The tinges of regret and resignation we occasionally see in her are of a woman half conscious of losing her soul. A small-framed physical presence, Wanamaker does not bully her family, but that permanently sour visage and steady low voice intimidates them — and us — very convincingly. Her Bessie, the antagonist, emerges surprisingly as the anchor of the play.

Such unforced and subtle naturalism distinguishes all the actors in this tight knit ensemble. If the opening moments seem slow, just sit back and adjust to its rhythms. No affected immigrant- family histrionics here. Just a quiet, seemingly uneventful night at the Bergers. The “slice of life” done tastefully and expertly. It is in this context that Ben Gazzara’s somewhat daring “method” performance as the prophetic grandfather Jacob, can be best appreciated. No doubt there’ll be some grumbling over his grainy monotone, heavily Yiddish-accented droning. But it forces you to listen. And it’s far from the stereotype of the schmaltzy old wise man this role can fall victim to.

My only disappointment in the casting — and it’s admittedly not insignificant — is in the two young protagonists, Hennie and Ralph. The former is woefully underwritten as a character and the latter is given to Waiting For Lefty-style speechifying more than heartfelt confession. But whatever small plot there is to Awake and Sing hinges on their efforts to break free from the prison of their family. The “struggle for life” is theirs most of all. It is therefore helpful to like them, and likeability and charm are not the strong suits of either Lauren Ambrose or Pablo Schreiber. Yes, both characters “got the blues,” but Ambrose is too deflated and Schreiber too cold and strident to make me want to root for them. (While an asset in other roles, Schreiber’s 6’3” rail-thin frame and steely-eyed demeanor don’t help here. Odd casting for an underdog.)

Where Sher will invite the most criticism is in his approach to the scenic conception of the play. At first what struck me about Michael Yeargain’s set is how closely it resembled pictures of the original Group production. (Day bed and window stage right, dinner table stage right with a makeshift curtain dividing the two areas.) While this apartment seems way too spacious for a 1935 Bronx tenement (and even regardless of historical realism, the play does demand claustrophobia), at least Yeargain has purged all sepia tones from his tattered plain walls, daring the fill the stage with grey.

Such modesty doesn’t last long however, when (spoiler alert!) in the middle of the second act — mid-dialogue, no less — the walls begin to levitate. Sher and Yeargain then steadily remove more of the “confines” so that by play’s end the space has been completely opened up and Ralph stands transcendent and “free at last.” It’s definitely a jarring concept.

Some benefits include letting us see into the other rooms of the apartment and even the crucial stairwell beyond. (I liked the glimpse we get of Moe exposing his prosthetic leg, for instance.) But is this sudden explosion of magical realism without any preparation in Act One a wrong turn? (Especially when accompanied by anachronistic ethereal Arvo Part music?) Personally, I took more issue with the timing of these moments, especially when they drowned out valuable text. (Poor Sam Feinschriber never gets to tell his story!) The “peeling away” that happens between acts was less disruptive.

Disrupting, though, seems precisely what Sher and Yeargain wanted to do, though. And that’s where I find fault. The text can stand up to such interventions, but a more pervasive strategy would have to be employed to disrupt it throughout. I also am dismayed by what probably is too insecure a distrust of naturalism in any form.

Did Sher think we would just get bored by three hours of “kitchen sink realism”? More likely, he was bored of it. Whatever the production gains poetically is lost in social commentary. Gone is the environment, the “petty conditions.” The stage suddenly becomes just a little too pretty, in effect. Much as we mock it now, there once was a social point to the “kitchen sink.” (Ironically, the disappearing of the walls, show us the sink here, but no matter.)

[For some great visual images of the set — and explanatory commentary by Sher — see the fun “Audio Slide Show” on the NYTimes.com theatre page. ]

The abstractness of the design leads to another deficiency: the downplaying of period. This is not a production outwardly concerned with the thirties. I’m sure leather jackets were around then, for instance, but isn’t Moe’s here a trite extravagant? (Or is it just a way to remind the younger audiences that Mark Ruffalo is cool!) The sparse set also seems deliberately “timeless” and uninformed by the world around it. (The walls are practically bare. Which may be why it doesn’t seem to evoke a specifically Jewish family home either.)

Then again, such historical boxing in and adherence to pictorial realism has led to the kind of nostalgia that has long cursed this play. By foregrounding the acting and the emotional worlds going on within the characters, Sher wisely reminds us what is still fresh about it. Besides, the minutiae of the thirties are always present in Odets’ dialogue itself, impeccably spoken by this cast.

Small caveats? The play doesn’t need to be three acts anymore; there’s a perfectly fine break between the two scenes of Act Two, which I’m surprised Sher did not take. Our theatergoing culture just does not seem to have the patience to sustain energy through two intermissions – especially when the second curtain comes down on a crushing fatality, not a kickline of showgirls.

Also — getting textual — the word “nigger” is used twice in the play, both times in the sense of being worked to death “like a nigger.” Sher ironically cuts it from a speech of Bessie’s (the bad guy of the play) and retains it when our heroine Hennie says it. If any amending is to be made, it would make sense to do the opposite, no? Unless Sher’s goal is to avoid harshening the villain and to complicate the hero. (The challenge of what to do with this word in revivals of ’20s and ’30s classics in general plagues directors constantly, of course.)

As for Odets the Political Playwright… Those new to him might be surprised by a seeming innocuousness. (Especially in this largely apolitical production.) But it’s there. Not just in the obvious, admittedly forced “happy ending” of Ralph’s salvation in the cause of union activism. (A trace of the play’s storied revisions.) But when Odets assembles the family before supper, and the capitalist uncle, the war vet, and the “old country” socialist all go at it, the turbulent outside world makes its unmistakable entrance.

And listening to them fight over why we go to war, how we compensate workers for their labor, and what we call “success” in America, it’s clearly our own world today as well. Too bad it takes a 70-year-old play to bring back on stage those realities so often ignored in our insular theatre of today.

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  • I just saw this and it was AMAZING. All of the actors were so incredible, and it doesn’t hurt that I got to touch Mark Ruffalo and get a picture with him afterwards.

  • Eric Olsen

    heady stuff Playgoer – very thorough and well-written – thanks!