Ethnic Theater - Jewish
"Awake and Sing"
Belasco Theatre, Broadway
Lincoln Center Theatre has chosen to bring back Clifford Odets’ ground-breaking drama, “Awake and Sing,” and what a joy for us all! This tale of a Jewish family in extremis is now housed on Broadway at the Belasco Theatre, the very theater where the original production was launched in 1935. And whatever the problems of this production, it is alive and kicking once again.
Historically, “Awake and Sing” played a significant role, offering a new kind of play. Everyday characters would be given dignity, humanity, and genuine emotions—setting the stage for many ethnic plays to come. This heart-rending tale of a Bronx family in the Depression years would bring fame to both Odets and the Group Theatre. Odets would become the company’s primary playwright, and “Awake and Sing” would be touted as a masterpiece.
The story deals with the indomitable Bessie Berger, who rules her family with an iron hand as they face hard times and limited funds. The most striking aspect of poverty may well be its physical restrictions, as any one who has lived through the Great American Depression well knows. The Berger family lacked mobility, were confined to quarters, and were stripped of privacy. Living with Bessie in the cramped apartment are her husband Myron, her children Ralph and Hennie, her father Jacob--not to mention the boarder Moe Axelrod and the dog Tootsie. Grandpa Jacob spouts Marxism, the son Ralph dreams his dreams, and the others alternate between notes of bitterness and passivity. But Bessie keeps the ship afloat, albeit she has very different goals than everyone around her. When Hennie becomes pregnant, Bessie takes ruthless measures, as she does with Ralph’s lofty plans. She wants security for family members, security at any price.
So much for plot. It all unrolls like a soap opera, but what makes it special is the dialogue—the unerring ear Odets has for the language of these people. He knows these first-and-second generation Jewish immigrants. He knows how they think and feel and talk. Every sentence is phrased—or mis-phrased—as one with a Yiddish background would shape it. The dialogue—hard-hitting, but poetic in its own way—strikes combatants like the waves hitting the shore.
Director Bartlett Sher has assembled a fine cast, headed by the superb English actress Zoe Wanamaker as Bessie. She never misses a beat under Sher’s careful direction. Ben Gazzara gradually grows into his role as the story proceeds, creating a sad, touching Grandpa, and Lauren Ambrose is dazzling as the troubled daughter. The cast is rounded out with Jonathan Hadari, Mark Ruffalo, Ned Eisenberg, Richard Topol, Pablo Schreiber, and Peter Kybart.
While Odets’ dialogue and the performances cannot be faulted, there is one great disappointment which seriously impairs the production’s authenticity. No one speaks with a Yiddish or Bronx inflection, as indeed this Bronx Jewish family would have spoken. Sher must have made a calculated decision to stay away from accents, and every one speaks with the King’s English. One wonders why. Surely a dialect coach could have been hired!
Despite this one disappointment “Awake and Sing” does give audiences the chance to experience theater history—an important drama once again holding forth at its old home.
-- Irene Backalenick
Apr. 25, 2006