Monday, November 17, 2014

Awake and Sing!: Loveless Intimacy

Awake and Sing!, directed by Melia Bensussen, at the Boston's Huntington Theatre Company (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

In a brilliant 1946 essay about Awake and Sing!, Robert Warshow called Clifford Odets the “poet of the Jewish middle class,” and when you hear his dialogue spoken from the stage of the Huntington Theatre in its deeply moving revival of the play you know exactly what Warshow meant. Odets – working from his own first-hand knowledge of Jews fighting to forge an identity in America, his consciousness of the hand-to-mouth struggle of families during the Depression, his Communist principles, his devotion to Chekhov, and his Stanislavskian training as a company actor in the Group Theatre – created a new kind of American drama. In 1935 he was twenty-eight and working at astonishing speed. In that year alone he churned out the agit-prop labor play Waiting for Lefty (which mixed Brechtian and naturalist elements and brought audiences literally to their feet, chanting, “Strike!” at the end along with the actors) and two magnificent realist dramas, Awake and Sing! and Paradise Lost. The best of the three – the best thing Odets ever wrote – is the Bronx-set Awake and Sing!, where the Berger family, in Warshow’s phrase, “live on top of one another, in that loveless intimacy which is the obverse of the Jewish virtue of family solidarity.” It’s a matriarchy that Bessie Berger rules over with increasingly desperate tyranny as the family threatens to come apart. Her husband Myron, who dropped out of law school for financial reasons, is a well-meaning, gentle-souled man who long ago ceded authority to his wife and who, in these hard times, has lost his breadwinner role, his work days cut back to three. When Hennie, their elder child, gets pregnant by an out-of-towner she can’t track down (either he gave her a false name or he lied about the company that employed him), Bessie marries her off post-haste to an adoring recent immigrant with a decent job who never questions the baby’s paternity. When Ralph, the younger child, falls in love with a poor girl, Bessie throws up obstacles; so does the girl’s family, and the romance dwindles. Ralph is close to the other inhabitant of this tenement apartment, his grandfather, Jacob, a Marxist who, though he himself is cowed by his daughter, fans the flame of the boy’s dreams and urges him to go out and change the world “so life won’t be printed on dollar bills.”

Among American family plays, Awake and Sing! is second only to O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night; among Depression plays, it’s second to none. But it’s tricky, because it’s a tragedy with a hopeful finish: as a committed Communist, Odets was duty bound to end on a high note so his audience would walk out of the theatre feeling there was still a war worth waging against capitalist oppression. (The optimistic resolution of Paradise Lost is even more problematic, after one son wastes away from sleeping sickness while the other, a one-time athletic hero, becomes a gangster and gets shot down on the street.) Melia Bensussen’s production meets the challenge in several ways. She plays it fast – even with two intermissions, it comes in at slightly over two and a half hours (most versions are closer to three) – and with more humor than we’re accustomed to. She gets away with it; there are only one or two moments when the laughter from the house feels wrong. (One is the second-act scene where Hennie’s hapless husband Sam Feinschreiber comes to his in-laws reeling because his unhappy wife has thrown it in his face that he’s not the baby’s father, and Bessie has to use her wits to convince him that it isn’t true.) At the end, when the younger characters are meant to exit in a flurry of hopefulness, James Noone’s impressive set, which dwarfs the Berger apartment under two floors of indistinguishable doors and windows, reveals a collage of pro-labor drawings and posters.  Mainly, though, Bensussen relies on the conviction of the actors to carry off the ending. The combination of factors is a success.

Michael Goldsmith and Will LeBow (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)
This is an impeccably acted Awake and Sing!; among the ten-member ensemble, from Kevin Fennessy in the small role of the beleaguered superintendent Schlosser on up, there’s not a weak performance, and two of the actors – Michael Goldsmith as Ralph and Nael Nacer as Sam – are stronger than anyone else I’ve ever seen in these parts. (It’s largely because Goldsmith is so persuasive as Ralph, whom Odets wrote as an amalgam of all the qualities he wanted a young proletarian hero to display – romantic idealism mixed with clear-eyed earthiness – that the last beat of the play works so well.) Giving perhaps the performance of his long career, Will LeBow makes Jacob surprisingly spry and light on his feet; LeBow delivers the old man’s laments for the dilapidation of the world of values he’s hewn to since his youth, and for the family (“Marx said it: abolish such families,” he spits out in a moment of extreme disillusionment), while he’s on the move, pitching his reedy body from side to side of the Berger living room. Lori Wilner is careful not to make the mistake many actresses have (including ZoĆ« Wanamaker in the last New York revival, at Lincoln Center) of portraying Bessie as a steely monster. We have to understand the anger, frustration and terror – of winding up on the street like the families she sees in her neighborhood every day that have made her intractable and driven her to block the paths her children want to take. In the second act, when Ralph finds out that she’s hoodwinked Sam into marrying Hennie and denounces all of them for their role in the deception, she takes it out on Jacob and does something so cruel that it seems to make the house shake. (It’s the dramatic highlight of Bensussen’s production, as it should be of any mounting of the play.) Warshow writes, “Bessie, confronted inescapably with her own immorality, turns upon her father, who has said nothing . . . This act of fury is irrelevant only on the surface: one understands immediately that Bessie has gone to the root of the matter.” I think what Warshow means here is that she’s blaming him for failing to give her a better life. My only quarrel with Wilner’s fine performance is that occasionally she errs on the side of humanizing Bessie a little too much. In the third act, when she defends herself to her son for the choices she’s made in raising him (in a famous speech), she points out that “here I’m not only the mother, but also the father” while pathetic, emasculated Myron is standing by listening to her words. We ought to feel the hardness of that moment more acutely; Wilner glides over it.

I have only praise for David Wohl (Myron), Annie Purcell (Hennie) and Stephen Schnetzer (Uncle Morty). Morty, Bessie’s brother, is a wealthy dress factory owner who dispenses the occasional favor to his family like a monarch tossing pennies to the crowd from his carriage; Odets gives him a wonderfully telling line just before his final exit:  “I’m going downtown.  Where’s my fur gloves?” Purcell and Eric T. Miller, as Moe Axelrod, the war vet who becomes the Bergers’ boarder after Hennie marries Sam, give their scenes together just the right mix of hard-boiled banter and erotic longing. They include some of the most remarkable dialogue Odets ever wrote; they’re love scenes played by indirection. It’s hard to say enough good things about Miller’s performance. Moe lost his leg in the war; he lives on Uncle Sam’s compensation, though there’s a hint that he’s involved in some kind of racket. (Odets made this clearer in the earlier version of the play, I Got the Blues.) Miller, who has the polished handsomeness of an old-fashioned matinee idol, gets both the hard-boiled side of the character and the romantic ardor that he can’t quite conceal; it comes out twisted, in lines like “Baby, if you had a dog I’d love the dog.”

Annie Purcell, David Wohl, and Lori Wilner (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Moe calls Hennie “Paradise”; Jacob, whose only joy – beside his grandson – is listening to his Caruso records, plays his favorite, “O Paradiso!” from Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine, over and over. These Edenic allusions are no accident; neither is the fact that Moe, searching through the fruit bowl, bitches, “What the hell kind of house is this it ain’t got an orange!!” (This is the act-one curtain line.) The image of an exotic world that’s far out of the characters’ reach is reminiscent of the picture of Africa that Chekhov insists on hanging on the wall of the provincial home in Uncle Vanya, which seems to taunt his trapped characters. Chekhov is Odets’s master. Myron, who wanders into a room and is so mired in nostalgia (like Gus Michaels in Paradise Lost) that he doesn’t always remember why he’s there, is like Gaev in The Cherry Orchard, and Hennie’s relationship with Sam is derived from Masha’s and Medvedenko’s in The Sea Gull.

Noone’s set underscores the claustrophobia of the way the Bergers have to live, but its narrowness creates some staging issues for Bensussen; some scenes have sight line problems and others feel a little stiff and pictorial, as if she were afraid to move the actors around too much. That’s a minor problem. Another, which irritated me, is the addition the production makes to Ralph’s relationship with his offstage girl friend, Blanche:  in this version, she’s not Jewish. Odets gave Bessie enough motivation for objecting to the match:  the girl is an orphan, she’s poor, and though the Bergers are too, Bessie has too much pride to relinquish the idea that her children are somehow superior to someone else’s. (“My daughter ain’t in your class, Axelrod,” she says to Moe at one point.) And – though this idea is only implied – if Ralph marries Blanche, she’ll lose his salary, most of which goes into the family pot. Perhaps Bensussen thought that Bessie’s bias against a penniless orphan wasn’t enough for a contemporary audience, but making her a Gentile feels melodramatic, and the play doesn’t need improving. There are a few other addenda here and there; Benssussen opens the play with a brief exchange of dialogue culled from elsewhere in the text, but that’s a conceptual choice, not a real alteration of the text (and it’s effective). In any case, these are quibbles; the production is superb, and obviously grounded in a deep love of the text. Judging from the conversations I overheard during the  intermissions, most of the audience around me weren’t familiar with the play, and they were responding to it emotionally. An Awake and Sing! this affecting and beautifully performed is a gift to theatregoers.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movie.

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