Clifford Odets' "Awake and Sing!" is a clarion call to arms, a domestic drama that stands tall on a soapbox of personal and political activism.
And Lincoln Center Theater does full justice to this stirring, venerable work, a play very much of its original time and place, New York 1935, in the middle of the Depression and uncertainty around the world.
This clear-headed revival, skillfully directed by Bartlett Sher, opened Monday at Broadway's Belasco Theatre, the same theater where the play had its world premiere 71 years ago. And Sher does something very pointed - visually - with the production. As this volatile Jewish family disintegrates, so does designer Michael Yeargan's set, going from a realistic Bronx apartment to a spare, impressionistic environment where the characters exist as isolated figures in a barren, almost surreal landscape.
"Awake and Sing!" cemented Odets' reputation as well as that of the Group Theatre, which produced the original and galvanized Broadway in the 1930s. The dialogue may, at times, be florid and heavy-handed but there is a passion in the generational conflicts that tear at this combative household's foundation.
The Berger family is run by its matriarch, Bessie, a woman determined to keep her rebellious brood together, no matter what the cost. She rules with an iron hand, intimidating not only her mild-mannered husband (a sympathetic Jonathan Hadary), who daydreams of get-rich-quick schemes and the local picture show, but her two unhappy children as well.
Zoe Wanamaker gives a fierce, fireplug of a performance as the shrewd, practical Bessie. She's a woman driven by economic insecurity. Bessie idolizes her brother, Morty (Ned Eisenberg), a successful businessman in the garment trade, and she barely tolerates the family's grandfather, Jacob, portrayed with a graceful fragility by Ben Gazzara. He's an aging revolutionary who spouts diatribes against the capitalistic system and listens contentedly to opera recordings by Caruso.
It's Jacob who urges the family's younger members to revolt, particularly his grandson, Ralph, an emotional youth who is ground down by his dead-end job. Pablo Schreiber plays him with the right mixture of idealism and despair.
Daughter Hennie has her own, even more pressing problems. Pregnant by a man who then disappears, she is forced into a loveless marriage with a newly arrived immigrant (Richard Topol). Yet she's really attracted to Moe Axelrod, the Berger's cynical boarder, who watches the family's collapse with more than a little interest.
A disabled World War I vet, Moe is played by the charismatic, swaggering Mark Ruffalo, who manages to make Odets' often dated, wise-guy patter sound believable. Lauren Ambrose, best known as Claire on HBO's "Six Feet Under," nicely captures the insecurity of a young woman, masking it behind a belligerence that is ready to evaporate at a moment's notice.
Odets' reputation has suffered over the years, and some of his later plays, such as "The Country Girl" and "The Flowering Peach," don't have the urgency of such quintessential 1930s works such as "Waiting for Lefty," "Golden Boy" and "Rocket to the Moon."
But "Awake and Sing!" is his masterpiece, a tough-minded, sentimental and, in the end, optimistic portrait of a family struggling to survive. It is the stuff of great all-American theater.
If Clifford Odets' "Awake and Sing!" is the quintessential Depression play - and it is - it's not just because it depicts the pain of those years but also because it conveys its characters' unquenchable dreams.
The Group Theater, which created the play in 1935, was itself a dream based on artistic and social idealism. It probably could not have been realized except under the crippling economic conditions of the Depression.
"Awake" describes the Berger family, the hapless father, Myron (Jonathan Hadary), his resolute, self-sacrificing wife, Bessie (Zoe Wanamaker), their idealistic son, Ralph (Pablo Schreiber), and their deeply conflicted daughter, Hennie (Lauren Ambrose).
Sharing their cramped Bronx apartment is Bessie's father, Jacob (Ben Gazzara), who is equally passionate about Marxism and Italian opera.
The harshness of their situation is lightened only by Bessie's rich brother Morty (Ned Eisenberg), a garmento, and Hennie's former lover, Moe (Mark Ruffalo), a World War I vet turned gangster who boards with them.
What gives the play interest beyond its portrait of a historic moment is Odets' language, a poignant blend of American bravado and Yiddish syntax.
Wanamaker conveys Bessie's indomitable spirit with great force -she has a lot of the evening's funniest lines, but we never laugh without being aware of the rueful, bitter quality of her humor.
Ruffalo gives Moe a soulfulness that balances his often crude behavior. Ambrose has a tart quality that suggests a flapper bewildered at how her wings have been clipped.
Eisenberg captures the toughness of the one successful character smoothly. Richard Topol has a painful absurdity as Hennie's husband. Hadary sounds a single note as Myron. Schreiber has a poetic quality as Ralph, and Gazzara is noble and mournful as Jacob.
Michael Yeargan's set seems a little too spacious, but Christopher Akerlind's lighting keeps us mindful of the bleakness of the Bergers' situation. Under Bartlett Sher's direction, the play does indeed sing.
The centenary of playwright Clifford Odets, a key figure in American theater history, is certainly worth celebrating, and last night the Lincoln Center Theater duly celebrated with a production of his most popular play, "Awake and Sing!"
This star-studded production, shrewdly staged at the Belasco by Bartlett Sher, with Ben Gazzara, Mark Ruffalo and one of Britain's greatest actresses, American-born Zoe Wanamaker, does Odets proud - or as proud as Odets can now be done.
Granted, it was he who opened the door to blue-collar realism in the English-speaking theater. Without Odets - and the Group Theatre of Harold Clurman and Lee ("The Method") Strasberg, which staged him -we might not have had Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams or the final masterpieces of Eugene O'Neill.
A play about the struggling Berger family in the depths of the Depression, "Awake and Sing!" is simple to the point of being simplistic - nothing more than an appeal for idealism, a politically socialist idealism, set against the mercenary capitalism Odets felt was strangling America.
The significance of Odets is scarcely his storytelling or corny dramatic structure, but his ability to listen to the way people actually spoke. He didn't always hear it accurately, but he listened.
He owed more to Elmer ("Street Scene") Rice, an even earlier American pioneer, than is usually acknowledged, yet it was Odets who gave the American theater the electric jolt it needed.
So, is "Awake and Sing!" a great play? Not really.
The cast of the 1935 original included Morris Carnovsky, Jules Garfield (later known as John Garfield) and Stella and her brother Luther Adler.
Was that cast better than this? Garfield as the young idealist Ralph -who learns that life has to be more than something "printed on a dollar bill" - must have been extraordinary, but then so is the present Ralph, the gangling and passionate Pablo Schreiber.
Despite my admiration for Stella Adler, I doubt whether she could have given a more subtly layered performance than Wanamaker gives as Bessie, the gutsy, duplicitous matriarch of the Berger clan.
There is some lovely acting going on in this dull and sensible Bronx apartment, including Jonathan Hadary's painfully convincing henpecked husband, and the gruff-voiced, beaten-down Gazzara as Grandfather Jacob, lost in his books and Caruso records.
Then there's Lauren Ambrose (beautifully surfacing from TV's "Six Feet Under") as the flightily desperate daughter; Ruffalo playing the embittered wiseguy war veteran who wants her; and Ned Eisenberg as the ruthlessly successful Uncle Morty from the garment trade -cliches all, whom the actors have transformed into life.
Still, no contemporary actor could re-create the white-hot images Odets' play must have suggested to cast and audience alike 71 years ago.
Most art has a limited shelf life: First it's fresh; then, if it's lucky like "Awake and Sing!," a period piece or curiosity; and finally, if it's very, very good, a classic.
"Awake and Sing!" is unlikely to achieve classic status. But then, David Hare's "Stuff Happens" seems startlingly good today. Yet how will it seem in 2077?
Life begins tomorrow for the anxious souls inhabiting an overstuffed Bronx apartment in Clifford Odets's "Awake and Sing!" Or was it over long before yesterday?
Dreams and disappointments, hopes and fears, encouraging words and bitter put-downs clash by day and night in Odets's turbulent comedy-drama about a Jewish family struggling to stay afloat in the 1930's. Conflict suffuses the stale air with a tension that almost seems to have mottled the walls. Dinner becomes a simmering battle between factions, in which grievances and recriminations are passed around the table along with the salt and pepper.
In the stirring revival that opened last night at the Belasco Theater, where "Awake and Sing!" was first produced in1935 during the brief but influential heyday of the Group Theater, the tension derives above all from the question marks on the faces of the younger characters onstage.
Ralph Berger (Pablo Schreiber), toiling away at 22 as a clerk for a measly salary, comes closest to putting it in so many words, articulating a query that Odets posed in much of his work, occasionally with a defiantly American bluntness: What's life for, anyway?
The answers proposed and debated in this vigorous, still pungently funny play sometimes emit the hissing sound of old radio transmissions. "If this life leads to a revolution, it's a good life," avows Ralph's grandfather Jacob, a Marx-worshiping barber. "Otherwise it’s for nothing." But even for Jacob life is also for listening to Caruso sing of a paradise that no social upheaval could really bring about.
Odets was writing at the height of the Depression, when economic disorder had led to a sudden, urgent questioning of some fundamental tenets of American society. "Awake and Sing!" and his other early plays are fired by a belief that art could play a role in transforming the culture, creating a world in which life wouldn't be "printed on dollar bills."
But his impassioned desire to proselytize for a better future didn't obscure his sensitivity to the everyday despair that tinted American lives long before the stock market crashed, or the humble forms of solace available even to a guy without a dollar to his name, like the rush of joy in his heart at the gleam in his girl's eye.
"She's so beautiful, you look at her and cry!" marvels the love-smitten Ralph, the young man over whose future a three-act battle is waged in this play. "She's like French words!"
The messy give and take between ideologies and realities, and between hard fact and exuberant feeling, still thrums in "Awake and Sing!" It drives the play forvard even when the energy dissipates in Bartlett Sher's sympathetic but occasionally faltering staging for Lincoln Center Theater.
All of Mr. Sher's skilled performers manage to locate the dreaming centers of their characters, buried beneath layers of political sloganeering, everyday gripes or street slang. And even when the focus blurs, Odets's zesty dialogue, in which jazzy period colloquialisms are slung around like punches at a prizefight, is a joy to hear.
Nobody slings it with more panache than Mark Ruffalo, the soulful movie and stage actor making his Broadway debut here. He plays the outsider in the Berger family menage, a wiseacre cynic named Moe Axelrod with a missing leg and a doleful crush on Ralph's sister, Hennie. Or as Moe memorably puts it, "I got a yen for her, and I don't mean a Chinee coin."
Hennie, played with a wounded transparency by Lauren Ambrose (of "Six Feet Under"), takes a tough line in her talk too, sneering at Moe, "For two cents I'd spit in your eye."
So it goes chez Berger, where verbal fusillades put up forbidding invisible walls to establish some privacy in the clammy atmosphere of an apartment bulging at the seams. Mr. Ruffalo and Ms. Ambrose imbue the testy interplay between these desperate youngsters with an inward intensity that rises to a charged climax in the play's final moments.
The other primary source of conflict in the Berger homestead is the bitter divide between Ralph and Hennie's mother, Bessie (Zoe Wanamaker), and her father, Jacob (Ben Gazzara), over the romantic life and financial contributions to the family pocketbook of the anguished Ralph. Bessie swats away her father's socialist proclamations like so much talk of "Santy Claus" (that's Moe again, bless him), but she doggedly puts the welfare of a certain collective - the family - above the individual hopes of her son.
As played with captivating flintiness by Ms. Wanamaker, Bessie is both repellent and moving in her blindness to the blight her overbearing love spreads through the apartment. Every so often we are given a glimpse of the frightened mouse inside this terrier of a woman.
Some of the play's tenderest exchanges are those in which Jacob, played with gruff simplicity by Mr. Gazzara, urges Ralph to resist his mother's imprecations to toe the family line and put away dreams of bettering himself. Mr. Schreiber's height is used as an effective symbol: Ralph always looks as if he's about to hump his head on a doorway, much as his ambitions keep bumping up against a want of opportunity. When Ralph folds himself up at his grandfather's feet, it's the only time this aching character looks at home.
Writing for his colleagues in the Group Theater, Odets created an ensemble work in which there isn't a single vaguely defined role. (The original cast of "Awake and Sing!" included Stella and Luther Adler, Morris Carnovsky and Sanford Meisner, remarkably enough.) Virtually all the cast members in this revival - including Jonathan Hadary as Bessie's ineffectual husband, Myron; Ned Eisenberg as Bessie's big-shot brothel; Morty; and Richard Topol as Hennie's little-loved immigrant husband, Sam - fill in the thick outlines of their characters admirably.
What is sometimes absent from Mr. Sher's production, unfortunately, is an enveloping sense of unity among the ensemble, the fluid transmission of feeling between performers that could transform this revival from the fine to the unforgettable by imbuing it with a sustained Chekhovian tone.
It doesn't help that the naturalistic set by Michael Yeargan begins to do a disappearing act midway through the second act. The symbolic point is well taken: as the family unit begins to disintegrate, the Bergers become more exposed, as poor Bessie has feared, to the cold winds of economic uncertainty and existential angst. But it's still a distraction, and it diffuses the energy onstage.
Nor do Mr. Sher and his actors always finesse the more effusively rhetorical passages in the play, which can strike the contemporary ear as corny in their lyricism or forthright idealism. Ralph's climactic peroration is a case in point. The now-barren stage and a flurry of snow do the work the actor might better be allowed to, infusing this exultant burst of feeling - "I swear to God, I'm one week old!" - with a sense of the provisional, adding a note of poignancy to temper the hokum.
But small infelicities don't smudge the overall sharpness of this picture of life being lived for all it's worth, despite the grinding oppressions of subsisting on the knife edge of poverty. The sweep of American history ran roughshod over some of the ideals Odets and other artists championed in the 1930's.
But ideals are not old newspapers, withering into dust. Even tattered, they endure. And as this moving revival reminds us, the song of human aspiration is always sweet to hear.
How we would love to be rediscovering "Awake and Sing!," the Clifford Odets landmark the Lincoln Center Theater opened last night at the same Belasco Theatre that embraced the 1935 premiere.
Certainly, our time should be hungering for a drama about real values, about a family torn apart by materialism, about what the idealistic lefty grandfather condemns as a life "printed on dollar bills." Besides, this is the centenary of the birth of one of the country's earliest playwrights of conscience. A jolt of thrilling American theater history would be a reason to party.
Despite an intriguing cast, alas, Bartlett Sher's production is more conscientious than exciting, more respectful than galvanizing. This formation of the Bergers, the working-class Jewish family in the Bronx, seldom feels as if its members grew up on the same light and air. Odets' original three-act, two-intermission structure drains what little momentum gets built. His common-man poetry sounds more self-conscious than musical. Stranger still, the emotions feel dwarfed by the size of the theater.
We keep trying to put ourselves back in the Depression-era audience that heard these words in Harold Clurman's staging and from the mouths of the Group Theatre in its heyday. There are flashes of emotional intimacy, especially from Zoe Wanamaker as Bessie, the disillusioned matriarch whose ambitions for her grown son and daughter prove more toxic than supportive. Ned Eisenberg is also persuasive as Bessie's successful brother in the garment business.
Otherwise, we amuse ourselves with the delightful and audacious - if miscast - presence of Lauren Ambrose as Bessie's restless daughter Hennie and Mark Ruffalo as Moe, the bookie "with a yen" for her. Ambrose, unforgettable as young Claire in HBO's "Six Feet Under," neatly transforms for her Broadway debut into a lithe, tough-talking, independent soul with peach hair and a clingy dress to match. Similarly, Ruffalo is almost unrecognizable as the smart-mouth embittered war veteran with the fake leg and a soft heart.
Pablo Schreiber seems too tall to come from this family. But he has a lanky nervous energy as Ralph, the son who longs for more than a job as a stock clerk. His character is saddled with both the most memorable and most self-conscious lines: "I wanna make up my own mind about things....Be something!" he exclaims, with heavy foreshadowing, in the opening scene at the bickering family's dinner table.
Surprisingly, Ben Gazzara delivers his lines in uneasy spurts and growling monotones as the grandfather, who listens to Caruso records and tries to channel his utopian-Marxist vision into Ralph. Jonathan Hadary has been directed to play Bessie's second-banana husband as if this were a character from the Jewish sitcoms of the future.
Sher and this design team are responsible for the Lincoln Center Theater's gorgeous-looking production of "The Light in the Piazza." Here, Michael Yeargan's apartment set seems awfully airy for the stifling, overcrowded, Depression context. Catherine Zuber's handsome costumes are perhaps too spiffy, especially for the women. After all, Odets got his title from the prophet Isaiah, "Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust." The dust on his script remains.
To be as affecting as it is in Bartlett Sher's slow-burning staging for Lincoln Center Theater, Clifford Odets' "Awake and Sing!" has had to overcome considerable odds. America is a profoundly different country from the one the playwright was writing about in 1935, when the Great Depression had opened a window to both despair and idealism, and socialism was still viewed by many as a viable model. In its premiere production at the Belasco, Odets' first full-length play must have resonated in ways it could never hope to equal in its return to the same theater 71 years later.
As much as present-day America is again in the grip of deep unease, it's a very different, more jaded brand of disenchantment--one that fools distant from the outlook of a playwright so distinctly of-his-time.
Changes in the social climate arc not the only factor that tests the durability of Odets' plays. Years of largely thankless work in Hollywood diminished his luster as a leading voice in American drama, and his decision to name names and disavow his communist affiliations in the 1953 McCarthy hearings undermined his politics. So some degree, too, Odets was elbowed out by Arthur Miller, whose examinations of modern American values arguably retain sharper relevance for contemporary auds.
So given that "Awake and Sing!" now plays a history piece, it's surprising how the drama's power creeps up on you in Sher's meticulously detailed production. The play’s radicalism dates it, but its rich evocation of a time and a particular social milieu are undimmed, as is its melancholy optimism about the human spirit. And the rough-hewn poetry of Odets' idiomatic language -- so strange and beautiful to the ear, yet played with grounded naturalism -- remains intoxicating.
For a play created by the legendary Group Theater, a unified ensemble is a requirement, and while Sher’s fine cast isn't quite a seamless unit, it is well on the way to capturing the frayed, fractious bonds that define the Berger family.
Scraping by in their Bronx apartment, the disenfranchised Jewish clan is headed by domineering Bessie (Zoe Wanamaker), who treats her milquetoast husband, Myron (Jonathan Hadary), and doddery Marxist father, Jacob (Ben Gazzara), with the same exasperated impatience. Well-meaning but hardened by necessity, Bessie resolves her only indulgences for brother Morty (Ned Eisenberg), a garment-industry sweatshop owner seemingly indifferent to the family's hardships.
To avoid disgrace, Bessie forces her daughter, Hennie (Lauren Ambrose), into a loveless marriage with recent immigrant Sam (Richard Topol). Her dogged aspirations toward middle-class respectability also prompt her to trample the love of her son, Ralph (Pablo Schreiber), for his sweetheart.
The brother and sister are set apart by their contrasting natures. Offering a parallel to the prevailing concerns of the '30s --when folks were laid low by the Depression or searching for alternatives that later turned out to be naively romantic -- Hennie is bruised and defensive while Ralph is an open-hearted dreamer. But they share the desire to expand their view beyond an airshaft.
Odets deftly navigates their release through two other characters. Hennie’s comes via wise-ass cynic Moe Axelrod (Mark Ruffalo). Ralph is delivered by Jacob, who teaches him to be an individual. "Do what is in your heart and you carry within yourself a revolution." Jacob urges his grandson, advocating a path he has been too timorous to take himself.
In the pivotal role, there's an exposed awkwardness to Schreiber's performance that feels not yet fully formed yet at the same time pure and true to the questing heart of a play about striving for dignity. Ralph's rejection of the kind of straitjacketed lives led by his family, even while choosing to stick with the same raw materials, is stirring.
Other perfs, too, show incremental strength, the actors carefully steering away from readily sympathetic routes. Wanamaker's brittle shell cracks with devastating results when Bessie reveals her heartbreak, first in anger, then sorrow. Hadary is touching as a sweet-souled failure, spouting inanities no one seems to hear. Eisenberg makes a vivid impression as an opportunist, emotionally removed from everyone around him.
As the tragic, self-sacrificial Jacob, Gazzara garbles some of Odets' more timeworn propagandistic passages, but his stilted delivery places him convincingly with one foot still in old-world Europe. The vet actor is most eloquent and moving in understated reactive moments, observing the struggles of his family with a heavy heart, enduring Bessie’s brusque assessment of his 'second childhood," or coming quietly to life while wielding his barber's clippers like an artist.
The most arresting work onstage comes from Ruffalo, channeling prickly charm into a proud man who uses glib aggression to camouflage his frustration. Ruffalo’s scenes with Ambrose are the drama's most electric moments -- masking their desire in cruellv confronting truths: later melting from animosity into declarations of yearning and love.
The production reassembles the superb design team from "The Light in the Piazza" -- Michael Yeargan (sets). Catherine Zuber (costumes). Christopher Akerlind (lights). Like "Piazza," it shows Sher's sure hand at balancing deep character study with visual command in delicately composed tableaux.
There's a bold stylistic flourish employed gradually over the course of the play's three acts that's both distracting and illuminating. Sher and Yeargan slowly expand into the space beyond the apartment’s mottled walls, jarring the audience out of the characters' claustrophobic lives. The conceit serves to break down the barriers behind which Odets' characters hide from each other while poignantly underscoring the unyielding harshness of their boxed-in world. For a play anchored in dour reality yet at the same time steeped in lyricism, it's an apt and striking choice.