Awake and Sing!
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 19, 2006
Clifford Odets's 1935 play Awake and Sing! would seem to have a great deal to say to Americans in 2006. Set at the height of the Great Depression, the play tells the story of three generations of a lower-middle-class family, beaten down by their socioeconomic circumstances and in search of a way out, toward fulfillment and happiness. The youngest generation somehow is able to locate and grab on to hope. In this excerpt from Act III, the mother, Bessie, argues with her 22-year-old son Ralph:
BESSIE: ....here without a dollar you don't look the world in the eye. Talk from now till next year—this is life in America.
RALPH: Then it's wrong. It don't make sense. If life made you this way, then it's wrong!....No, I see every house lousy with lies and hate. He said it, Grandpa—Brooklyn hates the Bronx. Smacked on the nose twice a day. But boys and girls can get ahead like that, Mom. We don't want life printed on dollar bills, Mom!
BESSIE: So go out and change the world if you don't like it.
RALPH: I will!
And he will, too; or he'll try: the play is called Awake and Sing! and that's just what happens to Ralph before it's over. It's a tender, exhilarating message for a society afraid that it can't make a difference—a society not unlike, in some ways, our own today. I love Odets's idealism in this piece.
But that idealism is barely detectable in Bartlett Sher's slow-moving and overwrought revival, now being presented by Lincoln Center Theater at the Belasco. Sher seems to have mistaken Odets's play for another classic American family drama: Death of a Salesman. He's staged this earthy naturalistic melodrama as high tragedy, and he's allowed his set designer Michael Yeargan to destroy its center with an arty expressionistic set that literally disintegrates before our eye. Ralph's final triumphant declaration, which needs to be spoken from inside the living room he wants to escape, is instead presented as a kind of moribund epilogue declaimed in a snowstorm. It makes for a weak finish to a disappointing production.
Awake and Sing! centers on the Bergers, a Jewish family living in the Bronx. The de facto head of the clan is Bessie, a tough-minded, difficult woman who knows her husband Myron is a weakling and that she has to make all the big decisions that keep her household afloat. We never know exactly what Myron does for a living; just that he's a small man with big dreams—he's constantly looking for a main chance via lotteries, race horses, and so on. Bessie's 70-year-old father Jacob lives with them too; he's a retired barber and an inveterate Communist—though not one prone to actually put his incendiary words into action.
Their two grown children also share the apartment. Hennie works as a secretary, although Bessie would clearly love to marry her off, preferably to someone of the appropriate social and economic status. (Bessie, though poor, is a snob; that may be the most important fact you need to know about her.) Ralph, the younger of the two, works at a warehouse in a tedious but unspecified job; he knows he wants out, but at first he's only able to articulate his desires in terms of what he never got (skates, black and white shoes, his teeth fixed, etc.). It's only later, after some meaningful discussions with his grandfather, an upsetting and tentative foray into romance, and some truly life-altering events that happen to Hennie, that Ralph fully understands and is able to articulate the ideals he has come to cherish and long for.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Odets's script is how realistic it feels. Although some of the characters (notably Moe Axelrod, a neighbor and, later, a boarder of the Bergers') speak in jazzy slang that owes its origins as much to Odets's poetic imagination as to anything ever uttered on Prospect Avenue, most of the dialogue and every bit of the ambience of Awake and Sing! seems authentic. This must have been jolting in 1935: there's some raw talk and situations here, along with an unapologetic acknowledgement of the characters' ethnicity, that would have been unusual on the stage at that time and that sometimes sits uneasily on our ears now (Bessie's rich brother Morty, who makes a couple of appearances in the second half of the play, talks about the "wops" who work in his factory and the "Jap" who is his houseboy; Hennie says, about the man she eventually marries, "Twenty-one a week he brings in—a nigger don't have it so hard.") The point is, the play rings remarkably true, especially when the audience is allowed to believe in it.
But Sher doesn't give us much to hold on to here, which is what makes this revival so unsuccessful. The main thing that I missed was the desperation of the characters' circumstances. Yeargan's set and Catherine Zuber's costumes don't delineate the next thing to poverty; in fact in Act III, the Bergers all look quite smart in three-piece suits and stylish black dresses—surely they should be wearing clothes and sitting on furniture that look a bit more worn, a bit more lived-in, than what we see on stage here. There's no sense of cramped quarters on Yeargan's relatively spacious apartment set, and no sense of worn-out fight in any of the characters. Certainly Zoe Wanamaker's Bessie, a performance crafted of intricate and infinite detailed mannerisms, shows little sign of actually being tired, despite her constant announcements of same. But I'll bet Bessie is tired: life was hard in those days; it wouldn't hurt if we actually saw her doing something instead of just whining. (I was reminded, in contrast, of the recent revival of A Raisin in the Sun, with its subtle, silent depiction of Ruth Younger's endless daily chores.)
Sher has staged the piece, especially Acts II and III, at a snail's pace, punching up moments that don't need to be punched up, and in fact diluting their impact as a result. There's a sequence in Act II, for example, in which Bessie, in a rage, breaks her father's records. Instead of running into his room and smashing them on the ground the way a normal person would, Wanamaker goes into Medea mode, turning a tantrum into a rampage that makes almost no sense whatsoever. (The stage direction in the script reads: "She brushes past him [Jacob], breaks the records, comes out.")
Other distinguished cast members let us down. Ben Gazzara seemed to be walking through the role of Jacob at the performance reviewed, bringing virtually no passion or meaning to his important speeches. Jonathan Hadary seems to have little clue as to who Myron is. Ned Eisenberg is more effective as Uncle Morty, but he too, perhaps at Sher's bidding, is overly bombastic in his role.
The younger actors fare better. Mark Ruffalo gives the most accomplished performance of the evening as Moe Axelrod, the slightly cynical war veteran who is in love with Hennie. Lauren Ambrose, as Hennie, does an admirable job conveying how the passage of time and the assumption of responsibility can prematurely age a promising young woman. And Pablo Schreiber is just what's called for as Ralph, the naive, open-minded, and open-faced young hero of the play. Thanks to him the main ideas in Odets's script aren't entirely lost.