Monday, April 12, 2010

Awake and Sing! By Clifford Odets

By Joe Straw
Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust; Isaiah – 26:19
Awake and Sing! is a brilliant play by Clifford Odets now playing in repertory at A Noise Within Theatre in Glendale, California and directed by Andrew J. Traisters. 
Opening up in full familial glory, Awake and Sing! is a look into a forgotten time capsule and finding interesting artifacts. In the capsule is a figurine of a strong matriarchal figure and attached below her are the emasculate men in her family, all-cowering beneath her and grasping her robe.  
A family starts first as an idea, a dream of happiness, and thoughts of a blood relation that is unbreakable.
And then something happens.  Age mostly.  The children turn into adults and they have these strange ideas about love and happiness and living at home until they are thirty! Later, the Marxist grandparent moves in and eventually everyone is living under one roof.  Throw in a one-legged war veteran boarder and you’ve got countless conflicts under one roof. 
But, most of all, Awake and Sing! is a story of a Jewish middle class family struggling for life, in the Bronx no less.  
Bessie Berger (Deborah Strang) and Myron Berger (Joel Swetow) are living in a household that is forever stuck in the middle class. They struggle with their two grown children Hennie Berger (Molly Leland) and Ralph Berger (Adam Silver). Living with them is Bessie’s father Jacob (Len Lesser) and a boarder Moe Axelrod (Daniel Reichert). 
As you can imagine things are a bit crowded and everyone is kind of set in their ways but more so is Bessie who controls the household with an iron fist. Myron, her nebbish husband follows her around like their dog, Tootsie.
Jacob has discovered that his grandson Ralph is in love and has dreams of developing his relationship because “She’s like French words!”  Ralph wants to keep the relationship low keyed because “Mom’s not letting my sixteen bucks out of the house…”
Hennie is getting long in the tooth for the day (25 years old and getting younger everyday) and her parents can’t wait to give her to “anyone” who just asks. And then they discover that Hennie is pregnant.
“It’s like a play on the stage…” her crying heartbroken father says.
Bessie, taking matter into her own hands, orders Myron: “Tomorrow night bring Sam Feinschreiber for supper.”
But nobody really likes Feinschreiber (Daivd Lengel) and Bessie is willing to give Hennie to anyone who asks, like Moe who just came back into the room.
“Why don’t you, Moe? An old friend of the family like you.  It would be a blessing on all of us.” 
Moe’s got this idea that Hennie would not want  “A guy with one leg – it gives her the heebie-jeebies.”  Nevertheless, Moe Axelrod has his sights on Hennie throughout the play.
Bessie, always concerned about money invites her rich brother Morty (Alan Blumfield) for dinner. Jacob gives Morty his insurance policy made out to Ralph.  But Morty and Bessie, in another level of family, conspire to keep the money themselves in case something should happen to Jacob.
They all struggle for a piece of the pie and money seems to be an overriding concern to all of them.  
Alan Waserman as Schlosser has the thankless role of not being in the family and German to boot.
Lengel as Sam with a strong voice and powerful accent was fantastic! Lengel plays “second fiddle” to no one.
Silver as Ralph was equally good.  Ralph is always talking about tap dancing but never does a dance step on stage, I found that odd.
Leland, as Hennie, was excellent, but showing too much of her work on stage, without getting the desired results. The relationship with her grandfather was not as strong as it should have been.  And her relationship with Moe needs strengthening as if Moe had something to do with Hennie’s pregnancy.
Reichert, as Moe, was fantastic. (But, the notes in the play said he’s killed two men from extra marital affairs, did not see any of this in the character.)   It was difficult to determine what his relationship to the family was when he first rang the doorbell. Smooth exterior with a rough inner life, shyster and not taking anything from anyone, especially Bessie.
Jacobs’s (Lesser) relationship with Ralph, his grandson, is quite nice and all the more hurtful when Ralph turns on him. 
Blumenfeld as Uncle Morty liked holding the purse strings and will do anything to help his sister, Bessie. Nicely done!
Myron: Where you going, little Red Riding Hood?
Hennie:  Nobody knows, Peter Rabbit.
Swetow, as Myron, in such a defining moment in this play. Anyone who’s had a daughter will be touched by that moment.
Strang as Bessie manages to figuratively strangle those around her.  Manipulative and charming she believes she is the source of all that is right and if it isn’t right, she’s going to make it right because that what she does.
This is a play that requires strong relationships and Andrew Traister, the director, manages to pull it off.  It’s easy to see that lives are changed in a moment and Traister guides us there with ease.     
And I couldn't help but think that a little more humor would liven things up a little bit.
First produced in 1935 and directed by Harold Clurman, this was part of The Group Theatre’s production that stunned audiences into submission with their craft, their writer (Odets), and their realistic style of acting.  
The Group Theatre left a legacy that is still looked upon to this day with envy and deep respect much like A Noise Within, which, in and of itself, is a grand theatrical organization and shows playing here and now will be talked about for years to come.

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