The Playgoer: REVIEW: Awake and Sing!

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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

REVIEW: Awake and Sing!

Zoe Wannamaker as Bessie and Mark Ruffalo as Moe in Awake and Sing! (Photo © Paul Kolnik)

Awake and Sing!
by Clifford Odets, directed by Bartlett Sher
presented on Broadway by Lincoln Center Theatre

“All of the characters in Awake and Sing! share a fundamental activity: a struggle for life amidst petty conditions.” Clifford Odets, in his introduction to Awake and Sing! (1935).

This is what stage naturalism (in the sense first advocated by Zola) does best, the depiction of human beings in the context of their larger environment, their behavior and motivations shown as the products of social forces.

I was distressed to hear Michael Riedel on his PBS TV show “Theatre Talk” dismiss, in passing, Lincoln Center’s mounting of Awake and Sing! as catering to “spinster theatre.” (An odd epithet for this very emotive Jewish family drama.) The remark was made while interviewing David Hare, and the larger point was theatres would rather do such “chestnuts” than more “relevant” political dramas like Stuff Happens. Oh how soon you are forgotten, Odets, once dubbed in the NY press as “revolution’s number one boy”! For it was his conceit (and that of the adventurous Group Theatre who produced him) that representing on the Depression-era stage the plight of the Berger family from the Bronx was just as political an act as showing us the backroom dealings of Bush and Blair. The surprise in store to the Riedels out there is that Awake and Sing!—when enacted truthfully and at full-force—still grabs you by the collar more than occasionally, reminding you of the price of materialism, of an inhuman society, and, yes, even of war.

Granted, the play hasn’t been helped over the years by timid regional revivals, clueless college productions, and, frankly, the over-romanticizing by some of our elder theatre colleagues of the Group aura in general. To those jaded by such experiences, I especially commend Bartlett Sher’s freshly considered and rigorous revival, where nostalgia is replaced by a genuinely affecting melancholy of “life amidst petty conditions.” Even in its oddest and least successful choices—especially in the scenic conception—there’s not a lazy or clichéd note to the whole evening. If all our classics were produced with this much care, we would be a healthier theatre indeed.

The production also reminds us that Odets wrote for some of the greatest stage actors this country has ever known (i.e. the Group company) and that nothing wipes away the taint of “datedness” from his scripts like good acting. His powerfully loony locutions (part Yiddish, part gangster) sound dated only in the mouths of lackluster actors. Sher’s casting makes all the “dif” here, as Odets says. Especially in the two runaway roles, the sensitive tough guy—and WWI amputee WWI—Moe Axelrod (Mark Ruffalo) and the domineering warden of a mama, Bessie (Zoe Wanamaker). Lest any doubt Ruffalo has been spoiled by Hollywood, here is a reminder of what first captivated audiences and critics about him in Kenneth Lonnergan’s early stage work. (Lonnergan, of course, being one of many American dramatists bearing the Odetsian influence in his love of the poetry of the New York streets.) Ruffalo handles Odets’ language effortlessly (dare I say “naturalistically”) fully internalizing its big emotions. I say “internalizing” because this is a surprisingly quiet performance, not scene-stealing bravura. But his intensity and truthfulness is always highly tangible. The result is a very warm Moe, a romantic, not just a “heel.”

Wanamaker likewise modulates the given extremes of her dynamic character. Even though Odets may at times seem to write Bessie as the Jewish Mother From Hell, Wanamaker doesn’t show us a witch, but neither does she sentimentalize her as some generic suffering immigrant matriarch. This is just plainly a very sad, disappointed adult, clinging to the ideals society has taught her. (“Here without a dollar you don’t look the world in the eye. Talk from now to next year—this is life in America.”) The tinges of regret and resignation we occasionally see in her are of a woman half conscious of losing her soul. A small-framed physical presence, Wanamaker does not bully her family, but that permanently sour visage and steady low voice intimidates them—and us—very convincingly. Her Bessie, the antagonist, emerges suprisingly as the anchor of the play.

Such unforced and subtle naturalism distinguishes all the actors in this tight knit ensemble. If the opening moments seem slow, just sit back and adjust to its rhythms. No affected immigrant- family histrionics here. Just a quiet, seemingly uneventful night at the Bergers. The "slice of life" done tastefully and expertly. It is in this context that Ben Gazzara’s somewhat daring “method” performance as the prophetic grandfather Jacob, can be best appreciated. No doubt there’ll be some grumbling over his grainy monotone, heavily Yiddish-accented droning. But it forces you to listen. And it's far from the stereotype of the schmaltzy old wise man this role can fall victim to.

My only disappointment in the casting—and it’s admittedly not insignificant—is in the two young protagonists, Hennie and Ralph. The former is woefully underwritten as a character and the latter is given to Waiting For Lefty-style speechifying more than heartfelt confession. But whatever small plot there is to Awake and Sing hinges on their efforts to break free from the prison of their family. The “struggle for life” is theirs most of all. It is therefore helpful to like them, and likeability and charm are not the strong suits of either Lauren Ambrose or Pablo Schreiber. Yes, both characters “got the blues,” but Ambrose is too deflated and Schreiber too cold and strident to make me want to root for them. (While an asset in other roles, Schreiber’s 6’3” rail-thin frame and steely-eyed demeanor don’t help here. Odd casting for an underdog.)

Where Sher will invite the most criticism is in his approach to the scenic conception of the play. At first what struck me about Michael Yeargain’s set is how closely it resembled pictures of the original Group production. (Day bed and window stage right, dinner table stage right with a makeshift curtain dividing the two areas.) While this apartment seems way too spacious for a 1935 Bronx tenement (and even regardless of historical realism, the play does demand claustrophobia), at least Yeargain has purged all sepia tones from his tattered plain walls, daring the fill the stage with grey. Such modesty doesn’t last long however, when (spoiler alert!) in the middle of the second act—mid-dialogue, no less—the walls begin to levitate. Sher and Yeargain then steadily remove more of the “confines” so that by play’s end the space has been completely opened up and Ralph stands transcendent and “free at last.” It’s definitely a jarring concept. Some benefits include letting us see into the other rooms of the apartment and even the crucial stairwell beyond. (I liked the glimpse we get of Moe exposing his prosthetic leg, for instance.) But is this sudden explosion of magical realism without any preparation in Act One a wrong turn? (Especially when accompanied by anachronistic ethereal Arvo Part music?) Personally, I took more issue with the timing of these moments, especially when they drowned out valuable text. (Poor Sam Feinschriber never gets to tell his story!) The "peeling away" that happens between acts was less disruptive.

Disrupting, though, seems precisely what Sher and Yeargain wanted to do, though. And that’s where I find fault. The text can stand up to such interventions, but a more pervasive strategy would have to be employed to disrupt it throughout. I also am dismayed by what probably is too insecure a distrust of naturalism in any form. Did Sher think we would just get bored by three hours of “kitchen sink realism”? More likely, he was bored of it. Whatever the production gains poetically is lost in social commentary. Gone is the environment, the “petty conditions.” The stage suddenly becomes just a little too pretty, in effect. Much as we mock it now, there once was a social point to the “kitchen sink.” (Ironically, the disappearing of the walls, show us the sink here, but no matter.)

[For some great visual images of the set—and explanatory commentary by Sher—see the fun “Audio Slide Show” on (Link trouble? It's Javascript. You can also find it here.) ]

The abstractness of the design leads to another deficiency: the downplaying of period. This is not a production outwardly concerned with the thirties. I’m sure leather jackets were around then, for instance, but isn’t Moe’s here a trite extravagant? (Or is it just a way to remind the younger audiences that Mark Ruffalo is cool!) The sparse set also seems deliberately “timeless” and uninformed by the world around it. (The walls are practically bare. Which may be why it doesn’t seem to evoke a specifically Jewish family home either.) Then again, such historical boxing in and adherence to pictorial realism has led to the kind of nostalgia that has long cursed this play. By foregrounding the acting and the emotional worlds going on within the characters, Sher wisely reminds us what is still fresh about it. Besides, the minutiae of the thirties are always present in Odets’ dialogue itself, impeccably spoken by this cast.

Small caveats? The play doesn’t need to be three acts anymore; there’s a perfectly fine break between the two scenes of Act Two, which I’m surprised Sher did not take. Our theatergoing culture just does not seem to have the patience to sustain energy through two intermissions—especially when the second curtain comes down on a crushing fatality, not a kickline of showgirls. Also—getting textual—the word “nigger” is used twice in the play, both times in the sense of being worked to death “like a nigger.” Sher ironically cuts it from a speech of Bessie’s (the bad guy of the play) and retains it when our heroine Hennie says it. If any amending is to be made, it would make sense to do the opposite, no? Unless Sher’s goal is to avoid harshening the villain and to complicate the hero. (The challenge of what to do with this word in revivals of 20s and 30s classics in general plagues directors constantly, of course.)

As for Odets the Political Playwright… Those new to him might be surprised by a seeming innocuousness. (Especially in this largely apolitical production.) But it’s there. Not just in the obvious, admittedly forced “happy ending” of Ralph’s salvation in the cause of union activism. (A trace of the play’s storied revisions.) But when Odets assembles the family before supper, and the capitalist uncle, the war vet, and the “old country” socialist all go at it, the turbulent outside world makes its unmistakable entrance. And listening to them fight over why we go to war, how we compensate workers for their labor, and what we call “success” in America, it’s clearly our own world today as well. Too bad it takes a 70-year-old play to bring back on stage those realities so often ignored in our insular theatre of today.


Anonymous said...

Not to complain about the other matters that've been discussed here lately, but I'm glad to find The Playgoer going to plays again. Nicely done. Though I haven't seen the production and probably won't (too many other priorities), this thorough, knowing, and careful review makes me want to go just to compare notes.

I wonder whether Playgoer or anyone else is acquainted with Sylvia Regan's play Morning Star. Written in the shadow, or maybe I should say the light, of Odets, it seemed to me: a widow and her extended family on the Lower East Side, living through the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, the Great War, the Depression. Beautifully done by Steppenwolf in 1999, but not seen in New York in ages as far as I know.

Playgoer said...

Thank you, John.

I actually have read "Morning Star." An affecting play, and I heard great things about the Steppenwolf production.

It's published along with Awake and Sing in Ellen Schiff's anthology (still in print) of Jewish American plays, "Awake and Singing."

Larissa said...

Finally! I gots me fix!
Thank you for another thoughtful review....I don't share your beef with the set or with the unlikeability of Schreiber's Ralphie or Ambrose's Hennie, but I'm more curious as to why people often think that it is important to "like" a character in order to get the point that the author is trying to make through the character. An author attempts to tell the truth, and one truth is that some people are hard to like for one reason or another--these people exist just like the ones whom it's easy to like. The only problem I can think of in staging such people is that the audience's bias against that character might prevent them from understanding or trying to understand the character's journey, and thus might miss a big point of the play. But that's assuming that unlikeable characters are less compelling than likeable ones. The older Schreiber's Ricky Roma was repulsive indeed--but brilliantly and truthfully so--I know people like that (and wish I didn't). Why do you think it's important to like a character (whether the likeability hinges upon the character as written or the actor playing him)?

Aaron Riccio said...

I like your take on this, Playgoer, although I'm still somewhat bemused by all the critics who have come out in favor of this production despite feeling uneasy or unsettled by the direction. I enjoyed the acting (sans Schriber, as I mentioned in my review), and I thought there was a lot of natural behavior, but when you put those actions in front of a rising set . . . the contradiction makes it look like it has some other purpose.

I also have to stick with Riedel on this issue: yes, "Awake and Sing!" may have been the subversive and revolutionary play of its time . . . but times have changed. In fifty years, I can only hope that LCT won't be doing "Stuff Happens." And while this play may occasionally -- and only very occasionally -- grab you by the collar, I don't really think this is the production that will do it. Ultimately, unless you can find a way to tie the concepts of the play to today, it will remain antiquated. I love that you found melancholy over nostalgia: I wish I'd seen either of those over my own vision of tedium. When all's said and done, "Awake and Sing!" provokes a mood, but nothing much actually happens. I love a slice of life too, but the night I saw it, this was more like a sliver. And while it's true that good acting--and there ARE good actors here--can shake off the cobwebs, bad direction can just as quickly spin some more.

I also think you hit the nail on the head about Zoe Wanamaker's strong performance, though for me, it was her husband that came across as the most real. There's a man who is utterly hopeless, too hopeless, in fact, to even fight it. He's the most observant and aware of all of them, able to see all the sides, but he just doesn't believe in his ability to have an impact anymore, and so he doesn't. But he'll put up a jolly front anyway, just to keep things gliding along that thin, thin ice.

Overall, this is a great analysis of "Awake and Sing!" and don't take any of my comments as criticisms of your prose or opinion. If I write back so much here, it's just because you've provoked me to be a little more in-depth regarding my own critiques of the show. Good read, good read.

Playgoer said...


Funny I should hear that question asked of me, since I'm so often the one asking it!

Of course, I value all those characters we "love to hate." Liev's Ricky Roma was a masterpiece of that. I just think some characters in some plays DO need to be, for want of a better word "likeable." (More than even "sympathetic." I mean someone you want to hang out with in a theatre for two hours. Liev was actually pretty likeable in that way!)

Some plays go for distance and irony, and want you to judge the characters more than like them. Brecht, at one extreme. Even Glengarry is like that. But not Odets. Awake and Sing is very much in the romantic mode of working on sympathy and antipathy, I feel.

My issue with Pablo S. was that his naturally cold and strident qualities emphasized the "revolutionary" aspects of Ralph over the simple plight of a kid who just wants to be in love. Call that sappy, but from my close knowledge of this play, I think Ralph is a problem if he just makes speeches all the time, if he's too harsh. Again, I think Odets wants us to root for Ralph and Hennie to get out. That doesn't mean they have to be sweet and nice (he certainly doesn't write them that way.) But it helps if the actors can bring naturally charming qualities.

But hey, eye of the beholder may apply here. Maybe you see something in Pablo I don't? (He IS tall and hunky I guess.) Hennie is indeed a "misery chick", but Ambrose seemed to have more attitude than angst. I saw the sass but not spirit squelched underneath it.

Playgoer said...

One more footnote to the review:

For a theatre history junkie and Group Theatre groupie like me, it was very cool indeed to see the show in the very same Belasco theatre where it premiered 71 years ago. The fact the Belasco is very much "unrestored"--the dark dusty mist, the velvet fabrics now tearing on the mezzanine edge, for instane--made it all the more special.

Plus, there's the story of how the Group voted to do the play in a raucus meeting in the Belasco basement. In every since the play was born there, and now has come home.