Clifford Odets' Awake and Sing! does precisely that

Apr 28, 2011 at 4:00 am

Sam Feinschreiber is having a bad day. After just one year of marriage, already his wife Hennie is treating him like dirt. "Hennie could kill in the bed," Sam complains. Now he's learned that he's not the father of their three-month-old child. In despair, Sam has rushed to his in-laws for advice. "I'm so nervous," he confesses. "Two times I weighed myself on the subway station." The action onstage pauses long enough for Sam's weight and fortune to be read and discussed. This slightly preposterous interlude is quintessential Clifford Odets, whose character-driven stories of barren lives are suffused with wryness and irony.

Awake and Sing! Odets' saga of restive lives trying to ride out the Great Depression, has long been regarded as an American theater touchstone. When produced by the activist Group Theatre in 1935, it injected the Broadway stage with a raw passion. Seven decades later, can the play still grip an audience or is it simply a worthy museum piece?

The current staging at New Jewish Theatre smashes that question to smithereens. The excitement begins even before the lights rise on the opening scene. In the darkness we hear the sounds of a family at supper. Above the clatter of cutlery and glassware, urgent voices are competing for attention. Even in the darkness, energy surges across the stage and into the auditorium. By the time the lights come up, the audience knows it is in the presence of something remarkable.

"What impelled Odets' talent," wrote Harold Clurman, who directed that first production, "was a torrent of tenderness, warm and consoling, which when confronted by injustice would turn into an agony of rage." So it is that this account of three generations of the Berger family sharing injustices in a cramped Bronx apartment sweeps across the stage in veritable torrents. If Awake and Sing! at times seems excessive, at least it exudes the excess of zealous idealism. The dialogue is pungent — though it would be no more correct to suggest that New Yorkers spoke this way in 1935 than to suggest that Manhattanites in 1950 talked like the characters in Guys and Dolls. Odets' dialogue is removed from reality; his distinctive vernacular only exists in the comforting artificiality of theater.

Like surfers riding a great wave, for the most part this cast allows Odets' cadences to carry them through the night. Bobby Miller sets the tone as Jacob, the immigrant Jewish grandfather now reduced to living on handouts from his son. Miller finds a heartrending rue in this old Bolshevik who thinks life "shouldn't be printed on dollar bills" but who now regrets having spent too much of his life talking about injustice rather than taking action against it. Elizabeth Ann Townsend, a welcome newcomer to St. Louis, carries much of the evening on her shoulders as Jacob's daughter Bessie. "I'll do it myself," this overpowering family matriarch calls out as a kind of accusation when her milquetoast husband (the ever-exquisite Gary Wayne Barker) doesn't move fast enough to suit her. As Townsend snarls the line, her fingers twitch as if she's playing an invisible violin. For indeed, Bessie is the Berger family's monstrously possessive concertmaster.

Julie Layton is compulsively watchable as Hennie, the contemptuous daughter who is "sore on life." Brittle and sour, Hennie is her own worst enemy. Layton doesn't just pucker her lips; she puckers her entire face. She is a mass of undirected rage. By contrast, her brother Ralph, played with youthful ardor by Aaron Orion Baker, personifies innocence — though it's tough to remain innocent when your mother despises the woman you love. Jerry Vogel brings unexpected menace to the family counsels as the wealthy uncle.

Once again director Steve Woolf — as he did last fall when he directed another seminal Depression-era play, You Can't Take It With You (1936) at the Rep — pays more attention to establishing the overall arc of the piece than to fine-tuning details. Woolf's emphasis is on momentum; he doesn't slow down for specifics. Although some key exposition gets lost and certain critical moments are unprepared for, it's hard to imagine any viewer not being caught up in the vigor and drive of this runaway train.

For the politically active Group Theatre in the 1930s, a review in the Communist Party newspaper the Daily Worker meant as much as a review in the New York Times. In 1935 the Daily Worker dismissed Awake and Sing! as "an unimportant play, whichever way you look at it" — which shows you how wrong a critic can be. But "important" plays often lose their importance in the dust of time. Seventy-one years later, Awake and Sing! remains alive and vital. It serves as a jolting reminder of why we got to the theater: to be thrilled and surprised, to have our emotions shaken. Can Awake and Sing! still grip an audience? This New Jewish production can, and does.