The insular day-to-day trauma affecting a working class Jewish family in the Bronx during the Depression was powerfully dramatized by Clifford Odets in his acclaimed 1935 drama “Awake and Sing!” The success of the original production was in part due to the ensemble excellence and effort of the now immortalized Group Theater, the formidable and revolutionary company founded in 1931 by Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg, and Cheryl Crawford.
In that tradition, the Lincoln Center Theater production owes much to the direction of Bartlett Sher and the excellent sense of ensemble that he has created. Except for one rather unnecessary scenic effect that undermines the impact of the play at the end, Sher’s staging beautifully quantifies the individual strengths and realities of the characters that Odets created.
Working class people were attracted to socialism and earnestly provoked toward radical change during the Depression, and this movement is clearly a part of this drama that continues to “sing” with a contemporary resonance. This excellent ensemble does indeed transport us back to a time that no one dramatized better than Odets. So there we have it, an almost perfect revival of a seminal contribution to American dramatic literature. It is a shame that Odets, like Elia Kazan, was motivated to name names during the 1953 McCarthy hearings thus unwittingly denouncing his own philosophy.
Because it has been 22 years since the last major revival, there is a distinct pleasure in seeing this historical important drama reassert itself. Yes, there is something a bit archaic about Odets’ dialogue, but its pronounced lyrical resonance still has sting. But it is exactly that lyricism that the cast seems eager to embrace without a trace of artificiality. When you think how the original Group Theater advanced the Stanislavski approach to acting and refined it into an American “Method,” it is a pleasure to see how much of this technique continues to serve, consciously or not, our best American actors.
Pablo Schreiber, who is playing the original John Garfield role of Ralph, reflects all the volatile and impetuous behavior of the rebellious son, whose dreams of a better life and a romance are stomped on by family matriarch, Bessie (Zoe Wanamaker). Wanamaker is perfection as the tyrannical despot who serves as the play’s most persuasive guide into its survival and into its Jewishness. She is also the most accurate hurler of Odets’ bitter epithets.
While it is good to see Ben Gazzara back on stage, his performance as Jacob, the aging Leninite whose sensitivities are stifled by the realities of life, is perhaps too muted and stuck on one note. Only in his scenes in which he serves as Ralph’s mentor do we glimpse the rich texture of the character. I suspect that Gazzara, who has given memorable and lauded performances in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “A Hatful of Rain,” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe,” will ease into the role and summon up more emotional texture in time.
The realities of the play include a daughter, Hennie Berger (Lauren Ambrose), who becomes pregnant by a man who has mysteriously vanished; Moe Axelrod (Mark Ruffalo), an arrogant, one-legged, small-time racketeer in love with Hennie; and Myron Berger (Jonathan Hadary), a feckless father. There is also Uncle Morty (Ned Eisenberg), a successful dress manufacturer who stops by to give a handout and to get a haircut from an obliging Jacob. The poignantly pathetic presence of Peter Kypart, as the proverbial “shlep-in-law,” adds to our understanding as to why certain things in the play turn out the way they do.
Ambrose, who is making her Broadway debut and is best known for her role on the HBO TV series “Six Feet Under,” seems wonderfully at ease on stage and offers a vivid portrait of the frustrated and conflicted young woman who tries unsuccessfully to keep her sexual attraction for a cad under wraps. Also making his Broadway debut, as the impassioned cad, Ruffalo ignites the stage with his swarthy and charismatic expenditure of unconquerable bravado. Ambrose and Ruffalo play well opposite each other and provide the play’s most inflammable moments.
Hadary can always be depended upon to completely inhabit a character. He is the personification of the hen-pecked husband, the lovable schlemiel, whom no one listens to but whom everyone loves. The excellent Eisenberg makes it easy not to love his arrogance and cunning as the unscrupulous Uncle Morty.
The masterful set designer Michael Yeargan’s evocation of the modest apartment in the Bronx goes on a kind of metaphysical excursion at the end of the play. It is a pretentious enhancement that only serves to awaken us out of the play and its emotional core. Their vision of breaking down old boundaries is commendable but we don’t need to have it spelled out when the rest of the production is so clear and forthright. ***
“Awake and Sing!,” limited engagement ends Thursday, June 1, with a possibility for extension, Belasco Theater, 111 West 44th Street. $86.25. 212-239-6200.