Theater review: 'Awake and Sing!' at A Noise Within
Lies, cover-ups , machinations and greed — Clifford Odets took the unmentionables of family life and turned them into a kitchen-sink portrait of American hardship and hope in his Depression-era classic “Awake and Sing!”
The play, which is receiving a lucid rendering at A Noise Within under the direction of Andrew J. Traister, never loses sight of the larger political meanings behind the domestic disputes raging at the Berger household. Money, more often than not, is the bone of contention. No one has enough, and in this cramped Bronx apartment, crowded with loud personalities, it’s not easy to keep dissatisfaction to oneself.
The stereotype of the oppressive Jewish mother par excellence, Bessie (Deborah Strang) rules her tidy home with an overbearing fist that she keeps hidden beneath a flutter of self-dramatizing alarm. Myron (Joel Swetow), her henpecked husband, can only sit back and watch as she manipulates her grown children, Hennie (Molly Leland), who is having a baby out of wedlock, and Ralph (Adam Silver), a romantic dreamer desperate to discover a way out of this prison.
"Boychik, wake up!” Jacob (Len Lesser), Ralph’s Marxist grandfather, exhorts him early on. “Be something! Make your life something good…. Go out and fight so life shouldn’t be printed on dollar bills.”
It won’t be easy to heed such advice in a world that the playwright understood only too well wasn’t built for idealists. This is what keeps Odets’ play fresh 75 years later — a keen awareness of our patchwork morality. People are shown to be a mixed-bag, and progress has its work cut out for itself trying to transcend our foible-ridden human nature.
Moe Axelrod (Daniel Reichert), the Bergers’ cynical border who lost his leg in World War I, provides an outside perspective on the family meshugas. He is hardly a disinterested observer, with his antagonistic passion for Hennie, who marries Sam Feinschreiber (David Lengel) under false pretenses masterminded by her mother.
This turns out to be a fortuitous advantage for Ralph after Bessie joins forces with her big-shot brother Morty (Alan Blumenfeld) in an unholy alliance that threatens to snatch the young man's tragic inheritance. Moe doesn’t want to see Ralph's options narrowed. Not that permanent escape is ever a real possibility in Odets’ universe — but living more authentically is the next best thing.
The production hits the “period” flavor a bit hard. Scenic designer Michael C. Smith arranges Bessie’s spotless living- and dining-room furniture with vintage flair. But the women are such “noivus” wrecks and the men chomp slang like thick pastrami sandwiches. At times, especially in the first act, the milieu can seem like an ill-fitting Salvation Army suit.
But that’s my only qualm about the acting, which animates the characters’ conflicts in their many shades of gray. Flaws aren’t whitewashed and virtues are allowed to skulk alongside them unextolled.
Bessie is one of Odets’ most memorable characters, a ferocious maternal force who’s as protective as she is stunting. Strang portrays her in a way that lets you see how Bessie, at least in her own mind, is constantly fighting for survival. Even at her most perverse, when she turns her fury on Jacob, breaking her father’s beloved Caruso records, it’s clear that she’s finally taking revenge on all the men around her whose heads have been in the clouds while she’s been stretching the food money and shuffling bill payments.
Long before feminism made it a catchphrase, “Awake and Sing!” revealed just how political the personal can be. And though its language often sounds dated, the play’s discordant notes continue to speak to the turbulent longing in our national soul.
-- Charles McNulty
follow him on Twitter @ charlesmcnulty
“Awake and Sing!” A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd. Glendale. Runs in repertory, check theater for dates and times. Ends May 23. $40 and $44. (818) 240-0910, Ext. 1, or ANoiseWithin.org. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.
Photos: Top: Adam Silver. Bottom: Silver and Joel Swetow. Credit: Craig Schwartz