Can "Awake and Sing!" Still Sing? Fichandler and Sher Are out to Prove That Odets's Family Saga Isn't Obsolete
Berson, Misha, American Theatre
Nineteen-thirty-five: It was the year a skinny, fuzzy-haired Jewish-American writer still in his twenties emerged from the fringes of the Group Theatre to become one of America's most celebrated dramatists. The writer was Clifford Odets, and the play that vaulted him to national attention was his debut work, Waiting for Lefty, an explosive valentine to New York City cabbies on the verge of a labor strike.
The Group, an ensemble with the radical mission of storming Broadway with plays and acting of searing immediacy, capitalized on the tumultuous success of Lefty by swiftly following it with two more Odets premieres--the anti-Nazi drama Till the Day I Die and the Jewish family saga Awake and Sing! The latter work, a funny and furious portrait of the impoverished Berger family of the Bronx as they struggle to survive the Great Depression by any means necessary, was no blockbuster. But for many viewers, and some influential critics, it was a revelation.
"Sitting in the Belasco, watching my mother and father and uncles and aunts occupying the stage in Awake and Sing! by as much right as if they were Hamlet and Lear, I understood at last," recalled the New York-bred literary critic Alfred Kazin in his memoir Starting Out in the Thirties. "It was all one, as I had always known. Art and truth and hope could yet come together."
Flash forward 70 years. In celebration of Odets's centennial year, 2006, Awake and Sing! is set to receive a pair of rare high-profile productions early in the season--one on Broadway at Lincoln Center Theater, March 24-June 11, another at Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage, through March 5.
The dynamic artistic head of Seattle's Intiman Theatre, Bartlett Sher (a recent Tony nominee for staging The Light in the Piazza), seems an inspired choice to refresh this seminal work for Broadway. The actors announced for the show (including Zoe Wanamaker, Ben Gazzara, Mark Ruffalo and "Six Feet Under" star Lauren Ambrose) also make it a tantalizing prospect.
The play looks to be in good hands as well at the Arena, where it opened, under the direction of founding artistic honcho Zelda Fichandler, on Jan. 20.
Yet dare one hope for a true resurrection of Odets's play, a work that spoke deeply to the experience of my own immigrant grandparents and first-generation American parents? (A branch of my mother's Russian-Jewish clan actually goes by the name Berger.) Well, hope springs eternal. But then, the memories of several Awake and Sing! productions I've seen over the years kick in. Each of these versions (including a "Hollywood Television Theatre" adaptation, now available on DVD), was respectfully and earnestly approached, decently acted and garnished with well-researched accents and scenery to reflect the 1930s milieu the Odets script depicts.
Yet where, oh where, was the messy, enraged, hilarious, oddly exhilarating account of the strapped and strained Bergers I had imagined? Where was the full, peppery flavor of the Odets dialogue--an argot melding immigrant Yiddish cadences with the lingo of Hollywood gangster flicks and screwball comedies, and a nervy, aching urban poetry of the writer's own invention?
Where was the rocketing critique of American values and myths that lit up a complacent Broadway and won Group co-director Harold Clurman and his legendary cast (Stella Adler, Jules Garfield, Morris Carnovsky, et al.) 15 curtain calls on opening night? Where was the living-room saga that blazed the Broadway trail for the Great American Family Plays to follow by O'Neill and Miller, Hansberry and Wilson?
This Awake and Sing! I've hungered for, but have yet to see. And, in its absence, I have come to fear what Odets has left us is that most frustrating of literary curios: the obsolete masterpiece.
I WANT TO BE PROVFN WRONG about this. And Sher is on a mission to do just that.
"I admit I had avoided Odets before," the director says. …