Broadway looks to Odets

After years of neglect, scribe ripe for revival

Is Clifford Odets poised for a return to the spotlight?

A high-profile revival of Odets’ 1950 backstage drama “The Country Girl,” with Mike Nichols helming a cast toplined by Morgan Freeman, Frances McDormand and Peter Gallagher, is only the latest mark of renewed interest in the scribe’s work.

That follows the Lincoln Center Theater’s Broadway production of “Awake and Sing!,” which took home the 2006 Tony for play revival, and a 2007 staging of the play at London’s Almeida Theater.

LCT a.d. Andre Bishop, a longtime Odets fan, says he hopes to enlist “Awake” director Bartlett Sher to helm a revival of Odets’ 1937 play “Golden Boy” sometime in the next two years.

After years of being ignored for major revivals, legiters say Odets is ripe for rediscovery — especially given that the heavyweight plays by better-known playwrights have been so frequently revived.

“Once you work through the canon of Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, you find a whole canon of great playwrights like Odets and Lillian Hellman,” says Jon Robin Baitz, the playwright who, as a friend of the Odets estate, is working with Nichols to tweak “Country Girl” for the new production.

Prior to the 2006 “Awake” revival, the work of Odets had been seen on Broadway only about once a decade since his death in 1963. Compare that with Williams, O’Neill and Miller, whose plays are rarely absent for more than a few seasons.

In the history of American drama, Odets — also the writer of “Waiting for Lefty” and the screenplay for “Sweet Smell of Success” — is generally accorded a place that falls just short of the top tier of theater royalty like Miller and Williams.

An actor and founding member of the Group Theater, Odets burst onto the playwriting scene with two 1935 dramas, “Lefty” and “Awake,”establishing a rep for socialist ideals and a poetic take on common-man speech. Also a screenwriter, the scribe’s image is usually linked to his 1952 run-in with the House Un-American Activities Committee in which he’s generally thought to have avoided being blacklisted by naming names of artists associated with the Communist Party (although Odets’ son, Walt Whitman Odets, has said that the playwright did not offer HUAC any names they didn’t already know).

“His plays fell into critical disfavor for quite a long time,” Bishop says, attributing the neglect not only to a rep tarnished by Odets’ HUAC testimonies but also a general idea that the plays were dated.

“But certainly ‘Awake and Sing!’ really surprised people with how modern it seemed,” Bishop adds. “Among writers like Odets and Hellman and William Inge, Odets is the most likely to make a major comeback, because he’s so American and so musical and has this kind of street-jargon speech.”

Nichols originally brought “Country Girl” to Bill Haber, one of the producers of Nichols’ 2005 Broadway outing “Monty Python’s Spamalot.”

“Mike believes that Clifford Odets is one of the great underappreciated American playwrights,” says Haber, who leads the producing team of the $3 million “Country Girl” revival.

Odets’ late-career legit work tended to be less popular than his early hits, but “Country Girl,” the tale of an alcoholic actor offered the chance to make a Broadway comeback, proved one of his successes. The 1954 film version starring Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and William Holden won an Oscar for Kelly (as well as the screenplay trophy for adaptor George Seaton).

Freeman plays the down-and-out actor in “Country Girl,” with McDormand as his wife and Gallagher as the hot-shot director offering the thesp a chance at redemption.

According to Baitz, who first became linked to the Odets estate when he optioned the scribe’s 1949 play “The Big Knife” for a potential film adaptation, the casting of an African-American man in the lead role requires only minor changes to the text, mainly regarding the play-within-the-play. “We’re making small navigational corrections to accommodate the casting of Morgan,” Baitz says.

Also toned down is some of the jazz-era talk — “Characters don’t refer to each other as ‘kid’ every second line,” he explains.

The production is currently in previews ahead of an April 27 opening. Nichols and Baitz have experimented with streamlining the script in a way that raised eyebrows from some observers who saw early perfs.

“We played around with some cuts,” Baitz says. “We went back and forth about it.” But Baitz insists it’s nothing major: “They’re all small, curatorial adjustments we thought were in the spirit of Odets.”

With three Oscar-winning creatives — Nichols (“The Graduate”), Freeman (“Million Dollar Baby”) and McDormand (“Fargo”) — in the mix, “Country Girl” stands to introduce an even wider swath of theatergoers to a scribe who in recent years has received little attention.

As LCT works on pulling together a revival of “Golden Boy” sometime in the near future, Baitz says he wouldn’t be surprised to see a new production of working-man drama “Waiting for Lefty.” There also are rumors of a brewing revival of the 1964 tuner version of “Golden Boy” (with songs by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams).

” ‘Awake and Sing!’ was a revelation to so many people, and I think it reawakened them to the history of American theater,” Baitz says. “It’s a natural trend. We’re so familiar with Miller and Williams and O’Neill, we want to find more like that.”

Right now, Odets looks primed for resurgence. “Maybe his time has come,” Bishop says.

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