Awake and Sing!

Review by Adam Blair

By Clifford Odets
Directed by Bartlett Sher
With Lauren Ambrose, Ned Eisenberg, Ben Gazzara, Jonathan Hadary, Peter Kybart, Mark Ruffalo, Pablo Schreiber, Richard Topol, Zoë Wanamaker
Produced by Lincoln Center Theater
At the Belasco Theatre, New York City

What do you do with a play whose verbiage and structure are long past their sell-by date, but whose ideas are as fresh and relevant as tomorrow’s blast from When it’s Shakespeare or one of the Greeks you can rely on the audience’s already-stored knowledge of past productions and the playwrights’ unshakable reputations to impose a directorial conceit that, hopefully, bridges the gaps between poetry and prose, between yesterday and today.

It’s a tougher proposition with a play like Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing!, being revived by Lincoln Center Theater in a production at the Belasco that points up both the strengths and weaknesses of the script. The play is decades, not centuries old (it premiered in 1935 at the very same Belasco Theatre), but there are times when Odets’ purplish prose hits the ear as strangely as vernacular Japanese translated into English, word by torturous word.

Oh, the sentences all make sense in context, and the action (under Bartlett Sher’s direction) is fairly clear, but the Depression-era slang and “ethnic”/Jewish inversions of sentence structure nearly tongue-tie the actors. Worse, they risk making quaint for a 21 st century audience what had been a tough, realistic corrective to an earlier era’s theatrical conventions.

The language is only one brick in the unwanted fourth wall separating this deeply felt play from today’s theatergoers; another is the play’s structure. To explicate his left-wing social and political views, Odets used the naturalistic structure of a family comedy/drama, with the twist that this was an explicitly Jewish family (not seen, or not identified as such, on stages or screens to a great extent prior to Awake’s premiere). But rather than providing a haven for the characters, family life as depicted here is a trap, with several characters struggling to break free.

Odets condemns the bourgeois striving and fanatical “what-will-the-neighbors-think?” proprieties of these 1 st and 2 nd-generation immigrants as a system of lies that is complicit in the system of capitalist oppression. That’s a lot for a play to carry, especially since today’s audiences associate family comedy/dramas more with comforting sitcoms than with indictments of a world where “life is printed on dollar bills.”

Awake and Sing! concerns the Berger family, with the action confined to their Bronx apartment and the characters hemmed in by the Depression. Daughter Hennie (Lauren Ambrose) has gotten herself, in the argot of the times, in trouble. But the conniving of her mother Bessie (the remarkable Zoë Wanamaker), with the complicity of nebbish husband Myron (Jonathan Hadary), covers up the family’s shame with a loveless marriage to FOB Sam Feinschreiber (Richard Topol).

Son Ralph (Pablo Schreiber) would like to marry his offstage girlfriend, a penniless orphan — or at least get a room to himself rather than sleeping on the divan in the living room. Grandpa Jacob (theater and film legend Ben Gazzara), an unreconstructed Marxist and unemployed barber, wants to raise Ralph’s revolutionary consciousness — in fact, the play could be seen as a struggle for Ralph’s political soul, with Jacob tugging from the left while bourgeois, practical Bessie and capitalist pig Uncle Morty (Ned Eisenberg) pull from the right. The joker in this pack is vaguely gangsterish Moe Axelrod (budding movie star Mark Ruffalo), a hard-boiled W.W. I vet with a wooden leg and tons of attitude.

Director Sher and set designer Michael Yeargan provide an interesting commentary on the play’s supposed naturalism, with walls and doors slowly rising into the flies and gently settling into the stage floor as the action progresses through three acts. It’s as if the lies and compromises that keep this fractious family together are being exposed, bit by bit — and also as if this very specific, very ethnic family is being transformed into Everyfamily (just as Ralph is becoming not just a worker but a Worker). The symbolism — and Odets loved his symbols! — works fairly well.

What fails to strike sparks is the romance that should be another strong theme — the one between Hennie and Moe. They are written in a type of screwball comedy mode, with a passion so fiery they need to mask it in stinging sarcasm — kind of a Jewish Sam and Diane from “Cheers.” The sexual heat between them is necessary for the play’s climax to make sense, but it was only lukewarm at the performance I saw.

Ambrose and Ruffalo are enormously talented actors (she was the increasingly complex Claire Fisher in TV’s “Six Feet Under”; he was the slightly loserish brother in You Can Count on Me and a goofily romantic memory tech in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), but they seem like strangers on this stage. Maybe mastering Odets’ pickle-flavored dialogue occupied too much rehearsal time for they and Sher to get at the emotions beneath the words.

Odets is somewhat at fault here as well. I think he was less interested in romance than in the revolution, and even suspected that the biological urge was a distraction from reaching the Worker’s Paradise. It’s always tempting to make fun of his idealism, and seeing this production sent me scurrying to my Cynic’s Lexicon to find this quote from Herbert Marcuse: “Not every problem someone has with his girlfriend is necessarily due to the capitalist mode of production.”

It’s tempting but possibly too tempting. The big problem with seeing Awake and Sing! in 2006 is that it seems harder to believe in the power of people to change the world today than it did in 1935. Of course, they may have been saying the same thing in 1935 — people have been pining for a lost Golden Age forever. But it would be a shame if this play existed as just a theatrical curio and not as a passionate cry against the numbing, and dumbing, of America and Americans. This imperfect production at least sketches the outlines, even if it doesn’t provide the electrical connections Odets hoped for.

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