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A CurtainUp Review
Awake and Sing!
By Elyse Sommer
This welcome, outstandingly cast revival is a chance to savor the pleasures of a well-made play with plenty of heart. What's more it indicates that Odets' plays may have been unjustly dismissed as too dated in recent years. We may never again see people from all walks of life lined up at soup kitchens and millionaires jumping out of windows. Marxism has long stopped representing the working man's holy grail. But the inequalities Grandpa Jacob rails against and the yearning for ideals not ruled by dollar bills still resonate for today's audiences living in a world full of economic and other uncertainties and in which many a Moe Axelrod has sacrifice limbs for a war bringing the added pain of disillusionment.
Awake and Sing! makes us ache for its older generation with its unfulfilling lives: the termagant Bessie who has traded her youthful aspirations for intransigent propriety and cleanliness . . . her ineffectual husband Myron who she feels forces her to be both mother and father. . . her seventy-year-old father who's full of book learning and and ideals but, having never applied any of that wisdom to his own life, is now determined to break this pattern for his beloved grandson by making him the beneficiary of his life insurance before it's too late. . . Bessie's brother who's achieved financial success but remains narrow-minded and culturally deprived. All are portrayed with the called for nuances and Yiddish inflection, with Zoë Wanamaker's Bessie especially memorable. (You wouldn't know from her Bessie that Wanamaker was raised in England).
The younger members parading their miseries and dreams through the Berger's fifth floor Bronx walkup add to the overall acting excellence. It is their crises -- daughter Hennie's pregnancy by an absconding suitor and Ralph's love affair with a girl his mother refuses to accept -- that drive the plot. Pablo Schreiber (Liev Scheiber's kid brother and an increasingly visible theater presence) may at first seem miscast as Ralph, the youngest son bristling at being trapped in a go-nowhere job and family. He towers over everyone else but after a while this physical difference works to emphasize his sense of being different and needing to get away from this household which seems too small to contain him. According to one of the features in the not to be missed special Awake and Sing! edition of the Lincoln Center Theater Review, Odets' expanded Ralph's role to build up the hopeful ending and dissuade the Group Theater of which he was a member from its reservations about producing the play.
Mark Ruffalo's as the Berger's boarder, Moe Axelrod, embodies the tough as nails guy with the bleeding heart that brings to mind dozens of John Garfield movies -- the very same Garfield who played Ralph in the 1935 production. His chemistry with Lauren Ambrose's equally bravado-tough Hennie (Ambrose's first Broadway role should put her at the top of any casting director's list) sizzles with the sexual and emotional tension beneath their constant exchange of hostile quips.
Best of all, Odets' dialogue still sings. with authenticity and lyricism. Moe Axelrod's tough guy zingers are especially enjoyable and make one wish today's young playwright would aim less for copy-cat expletive laden Mametspeak and more of Odet's jazzy and diverse riffs. Just listen to some of these Moe-isms: "What I think a women? Take 'em all, cut'em in little pieces like herring in a Greek salad." . . "I got a yen for her, and I don't mean a Chinee coin". . . "The only thin'll change is my underwear.". . . "What this country needs is a good five-cent earthquake." . . "Say the word-- I'll tango on a dime." . . "Make a break or spend the rest of your life in a coffin."
Director Bartlett Sher, not content with helping his actors bring these characters to convincing life, has also attempted to give Odets' classic kitchen sink structure a more contemporary expressionistic finale. Thus as the tensions in the Berger household reach their peak Michael Yeargin's realistic set gradually dissolves into a wall-less, roof-less space. It's an intriguing visual metaphor to show Hennie, Moe, and Ralph transcending the barriers of the older generation's confining world. Unfortunately, it is too obviously a director's attempt at a coup d'theater than organic to the overall production. As a matter of fact, even the realistic aspects of the staging give some cause for quibbling. The always poor Bergers dine at a table covered with a fancy embroidered table cloth with the food stylishly stacked on a handsome commode. Bessie's rather elegant dresses further adds to the surface appearance of a once well-to-do family forced into a tenement life style by the Depression.
Since Mr. Sher has wisely refrained from diddling with the text, neither too fancy duds or directorial flights of metaphoric fancy interfere with the pleasure of hearing Odets' lyrical voice sing one more.
LINKS OTHER ODETS PLAYS REVIEWED
Awake and Sing/Berkshire Theatre Festival Production
TheBig Knife/Williamstown Theatre Festival
Waiting for Lefty
The Internet Theatre Bookshop "Virtually Every Play in the World" --even out of print plays
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by our editor.
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