Awake and Sing! by Clifford Odets. Directed by Bartlett Sher. Sets by Michael Yeargan. Costumes by Catherine Zuber. Lighting by Christopher Akerlind. Sound by Peter John Still and Marc Salzberg. Cast: Lauren Ambrose, Ned Eisenberg, Ben Gazzara, Jonathan Hadary, Peter Kybart, Mark Ruffalo, Pablo Schreiber, Richard Topol, Zoë Wannamaker.
The eternal war between idealism and responsibility wages on at the Belasco, in more ways than you might expect. In Lincoln Center Theater's mostly glowing revival of Clifford Odets's Awake and Sing!, the play's characters tilt against the twin titans of poverty and progress while the production's director, Bartlett Sher, struggles with using old-fashioned and post-modern techniques in bringing the play to life.
More on that presently. Though Odets's play opened on Broadway 71 years ago (in a Group Theatre production starring Luther and Stella Adler and John Garfield), it retains its inspiring emotional pull: Its story about a struggling Jewish family in the Bronx of the mid-1930s, the Bergers, is ever youthful in its depiction of hope abutting despair, dreams fading in the light of reality, and parents battling their growing children.
So timeless are these subjects, and so forcefully does Odets present them, that Awake and Sing! still has the power to move and surprise. If the play's socialist and Marxist overtones have dated in the years following the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the conflict as reflected in the play's primary ideological combatants, Bessie (Zoë Wanamaker) and her father Jacob (Ben Gazzara), still resonates with relevance.
She's sacrificed her life working to support her family, he's a revolutionary who believes that her efforts and anger have been misapplied, and doesn't want her son, Ralph (Pablo Schreiber), to end up on the same desolate road. While he dreams of equally distributed wealth and of the worker's paradise sung about in his cherished recordings of Caruso, she's fighting to keep everyone on track to financial (if not spiritual) stability.
To some she affects, it's as though she's wrecking their lives: Ralph's desire to marry an orphan girl with little money and even poorer future projects is one object of Bessie's derision; the unplanned pregnancy of her daughter Hennie (Lauren Ambrose) is another. When, late in the play, she turns on Jacob to make a point about the power she wields, it's a moment fraught with anguish for everyone: She sees herself as the necessary provider of tough love.
Bessie's concern for her clan's well-being is an integral part of Wanamaker's angry, angular performance, and centers the play with hard-edged heart. You always believe that she believes her choices are for the best, which makes it impossible to completely reject her often monstrous actions: She finds the heat within the icy Bessie, and tempers her fire with cool, irrefutable resolve. Wanamaker's approach doesn't always work, especially in moments not directly tied to Bessie's worldview, but it's extremely powerful when it does.
Gazzara's grandfatherly charm anchors his portrayal, though his tentative line delivery seldom meshes with Odets's inciter, determined to encourage (or even force) Ralph to build a better life for himself. Gazzara's Jacob is ingratiating, a lovable, wise patriarch and a fine contrast to the outraged intensity of Wanamaker's Bessie. But he doesn't speak with consistently compelling authority on the ways to bring about the changes he sees as integral to the country's well-being, making his impact on Jacob at best inconclusive.
Schreiber must share the blame, with a clunky, modern performance that misses every waypoint along Ralph's road to maturation. Creating neither a starry-eyed dreamer nor a belittled son seeking emotional refuge, he's unable to ground the play; only the strong efforts of his castmates, including a superb Ned Eisenberg as Ralph's entrepreneurial uncle and Jonathan Hadary as his milquetoast father, keep the play from flying off around him.
Which, oddly, might have been Sher's preference. Rightfully seeing Ralph as the brightest hope for the Bergers' future, Sher tries to represent the destruction of his emotional walls with the disappearance of the set's physical walls. Beginning after the first intermission (Awake and Sing! is gloriously, and correctly, presented in three acts), Michael Yeargan's cramped, realistic set begins vanishing into the wings, a deconstruction not complete until Ralph solidifies his goal to take on the world in the play's final moments.
But this cheapens, rather than enhances, the play: Ralph's attempts to break free of his constrictive upbringing has no emotional impact when we're not allowed to be immersed in that world. Odets's stark naturalism, which would inspire several decades of playwrights to transform American stage drama, needs no help in communicating Ralph's ambition. Nor do audiences choosing to attend an Odets play today need help understanding it, at least until though those rising walls make it impossible to focus on the crackling dialogue that should blow down the family's walls with no help from scenery.
This bizarre lapse is all the more discouraging given what Sher gets right: His bustling, busy staging of the fifth-floor walk up family home perfectly situates the Bergers in locale and era, he treats them with great respect and poignancy, and his work with most of the actors (excepting Schreiber and a hysteric Richard Topol as Hennie's harried husband) results in a generally exquisite ensemble.
The standout, however, is Mark Ruffalo as Moe Axelrod, the racketeering boarder who arouses long-dormant feelings in both Ralph and Hennie. As Ruffalo plays him, he transcends the caricature of a man who's balanced the Bessies and Jacobs of the United States into a workable system, and becomes instead a man of immense sympathy and passion. He sees - and enables others to see - that aspirations, however unlikely, can be made a reality.
This comes to fruition during the third act, when Moe and Hennie confront their latent attraction for each other, and Moe's message rings out as a clarion call for all the Bergers to grab what they can while they can, and let the future sort itself out later. Sher's modernist meddling doesn't help drive home Moe's encouraging sentiments. But Raffalo's charm and charisma, and that of his castmates, keep Odets's messages about the possibilities of life wide awake and singing melodiously.