To be as affecting as it is in Bartlett Sher’s slow-burning staging for Lincoln Center Theater, Clifford Odets’ “Awake and Sing!” has had to overcome considerable odds. America is a profoundly different country from the one the playwright was writing about in 1935, when the Great Depression had opened a window to both despair and idealism, and socialism was still viewed by many as a viable model. In its premiere production at the Belasco, Odets’ first full-length play must have resonated in ways it could never hope to equal in its return to the same theater 71 years later.
As much as present-day America is again in the grip of deep unease, it’s a very different, more jaded brand of disenchantment — one that feels distant from the outlook of a playwright so distinctly of-his-time.
Changes in the social climate are not the only factor that tests the durability of Odets’ plays. Years of largely thankless work in Hollywood diminished his luster as a leading voice in American drama, and his decision to name names and disavow his communist affiliations in the 1953 McCarthy hearings undermined his politics. To some degree, too, Odets was elbowed out by Arthur Miller, whose examinations of modern American values arguably retain sharper relevance for contemporary auds.
So given that “Awake and Sing!” now plays as a history piece, it’s surprising how the drama’s power creeps up on you in Sher’s meticulously detailed production. The play’s radicalism dates it, but its rich evocation of a time and a particular social milieu are undimmed, as is its melancholy optimism about the human spirit. And the rough-hewn poetry of Odets’ idiomatic language — so strange and beautiful to the ear, yet played with grounded naturalism — remains intoxicating.
For a play created by the legendary Group Theater, a unified ensemble is a requirement, and while Sher’s fine cast isn’t quite a seamless unit, it is well on the way to capturing the frayed, fractious bonds that define the Berger family.
Scraping by in their Bronx apartment, the disenfranchised Jewish clan is headed by domineering Bessie (Zoe Wanamaker), who treats her milquetoast husband, Myron (Jonathan Hadary), and doddery Marxist father, Jacob (Ben Gazzara), with the same exasperated impatience. Well-meaning but hardened by necessity, Bessie reserves her only indulgences for brother Morty (Ned Eisenberg), a garment-industry sweatshop owner seemingly indifferent to the family’s hardships.
To avoid disgrace, Bessie forces her daughter, Hennie (Lauren Ambrose), into a loveless marriage with recent immigrant Sam (Richard Topol). Her dogged aspirations toward middle-class respectability also prompt her to trample the love of her son, Ralph (Pablo Schreiber), for his sweetheart.
The brother and sister are set apart by their contrasting natures. Offering a parallel to the prevailing concerns of the ’30s — when folks were laid low by the Depression or searching for alternatives that later turned out to be naively romantic — Hennie is bruised and defensive while Ralph is an open-hearted dreamer. But they share the desire to expand their view beyond an airshaft.
Odets deftly navigates their release through two other characters. Hennie’s comes via wise-ass cynic Moe Axelrod (Mark Ruffalo). Ralph is delivered by Jacob, who teaches him to be an individual. “Do what is in your heart and you carry within yourself a revolution,” Jacob urges his grandson, advocating a path he has been too timorous to take himself.
In the pivotal role, there’s an exposed awkwardness to Schreiber’s performance that feels not yet fully formed yet at the same time pure and true to the questing heart of a play about striving for dignity. Ralph’s rejection of the kind of straitjacketed lives led by his family, even while choosing to stick with the same raw materials, is stirring.
Other perfs, too, show incremental strength, the actors carefully steering away from readily sympathetic routes. Wanamaker’s brittle shell cracks with devastating results when Bessie reveals her heartbreak, first in anger, then sorrow. Hadary is touching as a sweet-souled failure, spouting inanities no one seems to hear. Eisenberg makes a vivid impression as an opportunist, emotionally removed from everyone around him.
As the tragic, self-sacrificial Jacob, Gazzara garbles some of Odets’ more time-worn propagandistic passages, but his stilted delivery places him convincingly with one foot still in old-world Europe. The vet actor is most eloquent and moving in understated reactive moments, observing the struggles of his family with a heavy heart, enduring Bessie’s brusque assessment of his “second childhood,” or coming quietly to life while wielding his barber’s clippers like an artist.
The most arresting work onstage comes from Ruffalo, channeling prickly charm into a proud man who uses glib aggression to camouflage his frustration. Ruffalo’s scenes with Ambrose are the drama’s most electric moments — masking their desire in cruelly confronting truths; later melting from animosity into declarations of yearning and love.
The production reassembles the superb design team from “The Light in the Piazza” — Michael Yeargan (sets), Catherine Zuber (costumes), Christopher Akerlind (lights). Like “Piazza,” it shows Sher’s sure hand at balancing deep character study with visual command in delicately composed tableaux.
There’s a bold stylistic flourish employed gradually over the course of the play’s three acts that’s both distracting and illuminating. Sher and Yeargan slowly expand into the space beyond the apartment’s mottled walls, jarring the audience out of the characters’ claustrophobic lives. The conceit serves to break down the barriers behind which Odets’ characters hide from each other while poignantly underscoring the unyielding harshness of their boxed-in world. For a play anchored in dour reality yet at the same time steeped in lyricism, it’s an apt and striking choice.