A wake-up call to the New York theater scene in the form of Clifford Odets’s quintessentially American comedy-drama could not have come at a better time in an era of sagging plays beefed up by star-studded casts and plots commited to nothing but snarky sarcasm and quirky dialogue. In Awake And Sing! deliberations on war, love, compliance, and fear are still relevant, striking a familiar chord at the Belasco, where the play first premiered in 1935 during the short-lived glory days of the Group Theater. Written at the pinnacle of the Depression, when a spineless economy resulted in a skeptical view of America’s time-honored doctrines, Awake And Sing! sprang from an urgent desire to evoke social change-an aspiration that is generally overshadowed today by an appeal to profit from broad and escapist entertainment.
Through the eyes of a Jewish family residing in a tenement building in the Bronx, the inspired revival serves as a reminder of how severe economic pressures degrade the quality of life, and poison relationships within a family, community, and government. Odets’s characters are divided into doormats and rebels. The family matriarch, Bessie Berger (Zoë Wanamaker), feels that only money can keep her family together and buy them some
respectability. But her elderly Marx-minded and revolutionary father, Jacob (Ben Gazzara), has seen how capitalism can have deleterious effects on the freedoms and longings of an individual. Sandwiched between these polar views are Bessie’s hardworking and idyllic son, Ralph (Pablo Schreiber), whose willingness to conform reaches its breaking point, parallelling his fiery sister Hennie (Lauren Ambrose), who is pressured by Bessie to settle for a loveless marriage after she gets pregnant by a fleeing lover. Familial love soon mutates into betrayal or hate under pressure of poverty, and all that’s left is the wisdom or folly of optimism for the future. A handful of frequent houseguests add fuel to the fire: Bessie’s successful brother, Morty (Ned Eisenberg), whose cheery self-righteousness only emasculates Bessie’s husband Myron (a docile Jonathan Hadary); and Hennie’s admirer Moe Axelrod (Mark Ruffalo), whose crude charm trumps her husband Sam (an agreeably meek Richard Topol).
Skillfully staged by director Bartlett Shers, Odets’s play is as harrowing and bitingly humorous as ever. As the family’s secrets rise above the surface and relationships deteriorate, so do the walls of Michael Yeargan’s claustrophobic set, transitioning the naturalistic Bronx apartment to a spare expressionistic space where the characters exist in a desolate setting.
Zoë Wanamaker stiffly portrays Bessie’s insecurities and fierce manipulation, while Ben Gazarra employs a convincing wisdom with his graceful Jacob, who encourages the family’s younger members to revolt, particularly Ralph who is played with equal parts idealism and despair by a dedicated Pablo Schreiber. But it is the love-hate relationship played out between Lauren Ambrose’s belligerently vulnerable Hennie and Mark Ruffalo’s secretively sensitive wise-guy that keeps the tension palpable throughout. Both Ambrose (known best for her role as Claire in HBO’s "Six Feet Under") and Ruffalo, whose film and television work are mostly marked by ruffled and apathetic characters, refreshingly channel these somewhat similar evasive roles into sharp and forthright portraits.
This dysfunctional family saga, sprinkled with a celebrity ensemble, doesn’t exactly lift and sing as loudly as the monumental production that premiered six decades ago. However, in fulfilling its original purpose, it does strive to be less dated, more relevant, and ultimately more inspiring than some of its other neighbors on the Broadway boards.
Lisa Quintela’s reviews have appeared in Time Out NY and various online publications.<