Huntington's "Awake and Sing": Snooze and Schmooze?

Correction: As noted in the comment at the end of this review, the character of Bessie indeed does smash her father Jacob's records in the original script. The incorrect reference to a lack of stage directions has been removed. Snoozing indeed, on the part of this critic!

Will LeBow, Stephen Schnetzer, Michael Goldsmith, Lori Wilner & Eric T. Miller
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

At the announcement that Huntington Theater Company was to produce the 1935 play, Clifford Odets’ “Awake and Sing”, theatergoers might have been forgiven for imagining they were in a time warp of sorts. Huntington kicked off their current season with “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (based on a 1967 film) and is scheduled to present “Come Back, Little Sheba” (1950) later this season. Additionally, they might well have mused as to whether such a presumably dated vehicle as “Awake and Sing” would induce sleep or seem like insignificant small talk. Not to worry, this piece has aged well (with some reservations), now being revived in honor of Odets’ birthday, who would have been 100 this year. It’s the first full-length play he wrote, considered by many to be his greatest (though some favor “Golden Boy”). It didn’t win any Tony Awards in its first time out, as they didn’t exist then, but the 2006 revival earned eight nominations and won two Tony Awards, for Best Revival of a Play and Best Costumes. At its core is the conflict between capitalists and communists, as the depression era produced economic crises and social struggle. The goal of the individual for self fulfillment vs. one’s family’s expectations is a call for action, from Isaiah: “Awake and sing all ye who dwell in the dust…and the earth shall cast out the dead”.

As the playwright once wrote about this work, all of his characters have in common a basic “struggle for life amidst petty conditions”. The action takes place in a Jewish walk-up in the Bronx in the 1930’s. The central role is that of the matriarch of the Berger family, who describes herself as both mother and father in the home, Bessie (Lori Wilner), a realist obsessed with social appearances and deeply frightened by the evictions she sees in the neighborhood. Orbiting around her are the remaining members of the family, most of them idealists, her subdued husband Myron (David Wohl), their daughter Hennie (Annie Purcell), their son Ralph (Michael Goldsmith) and Uncle Morty (Stephen Schnetzer), as well as Bessie’s father Jacob (Will LeBow), and two of Hennie’s suitors, Moe Axelrod (Eric T. Miller) and Sam Feinschreiber (Nael Nacer). The only other character is the janitor Schlosser (Kevin Fennessy). Through various crises, the family is at odds to preserve their basic dignity. As Odets wrote about Bessie, though she wants the best for her children, she is stymied by her own fears and panic. It’s a theme found in other playwrights such as O’Neill and Williams: a mother wanting her children’s survival, but sometimes ensuring their eventual destruction. As superbly directed by Melia Bensussen, this cast embodies ensemble acting at its finest, with terrific star turns, most impressively LeBow in a towering performance, and Wilner with her unforgettable portrayal. They’re all memorable (though Goldsmith’s delivery is sometimes too rapid for the acoustics of the house). Some of Bensussen’s directorial decisions might be deemed controversial,  but she does make the extended family seem heartbreakingly real. The technical credits are up to Huntington’s demanding standards, from the evocative Scenic Design by James Noone to the wonderful Costume Design by Michael Krass to the Lighting Design by Brian J. Lilienthal and the Sound Design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen. The Set Design, with Sacco and Vanzetti posters and newspaper headlines, is especially effective.

While it still speaks to us today, it’s often does so as though in a foreign language. As one might expect of a play that’s eighty years old, there are more than a few odd colloquialisms: “bughouse” (crazy), “plunks” (dollars) or perhaps the most outstanding one, “foxie-woxie” (?) and shockingly casual politically incorrect terms, even for Jews (“mockie”). Then there are such ethnic phrases as “you gave the dog eat?”. Yet some of Odets’ dialogue is too poetic to seem natural to these less educated characters, such as Ralph’s final admission: “The night he died. I saw it like a thunderbolt! I saw he was dead and I was born! I swear to God, I’m one week old! I want the whole city to hear it - fresh blood, arms. We got ‘em. We‘re glad we’re living”. Odets wanted his audiences to leave the theater glad to be alive. Written while he was an actor with the activist Group Theater in New York, before he succumbed to the temptations of Hollywood, the point of the play is best expressed by Ralph’s earlier exclamation that “life should not be printed on dollar bills”. So who would have guessed that this play from the seemingly distant past would strike us as painfully relevant today? Like many a treasured antique, despite showing its age, it might well prove to be of more value to us now than ever before.

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