Volume 19, Number 1 | May 19-25, 2006

‘Awake and Sing’ — alive and kicking, 1935-2006

By JERRY TALLMER

Turning at the door of that Bronx apartment, his Hennie in his arms, Moe Axelrod throws a so-long to her alive and awakened kid brother Ralph. “I wouldn’t trade you for two pitchers and an outfielder,” hard-bitten Moe tells the newly hatched militant-in-the-making as the curtain comes down and the audience rises to its feet with a roar.

Over the tumult, the man directly behind me could be heard declaring to the person next to him: “It’s been a long time since this town’s seen any theater like this.”

You can say that again, brother.

It was not that we’d been watching a dramatic entanglement of people’s lives in a Bronx apartment in the 1930s. It was that we’d been up there in that apartment with them, taking part, one of the family, there in the Bronx or any other place in an America where life is printed on dollar bills, during the Great Depression, or now, or any other time.

Such is the real, tangible, rooted, organic, collaborative achievement of Bartlett Sher’s 2006 Lincoln Center staging of the “Awake and Sing!” by Clifford Odets that entered the world in a Group Theater production in this very same Belasco Theatre on February 19, 1935, under the direction of Harold Clurman.
The players as listed in the program then — legendary now — were:
Art Smith (daydreaming, ineffective Myron Berger, father of Hennie and Ralph),
Stella Adler (iron-willed Bessie Berger, head of household, mother of Hennie and Ralph),
Morris Carnovsky (Jacob the grandfather, an Old Testament Marxist),
Phoebe Brand (fiery Hennie Berger, proud of her body but trapped in it),
Jules Garfield (idealistic young Ralph, hungry for something better),
Roman Bohnen (Schlosser the janitor),
Luther Adler (embittered Moe Axelrod, loser of a leg in World War, wants only one thing — Hennie),
J.E. Bromberg (obnoxious, self-satisfied Uncle Morty, Garment-district dress-manufadturer),
Sanford Meisner (Sam Feinschreiber, the poor immigrant schnook who is conned into marrying pregnant Hennie).
The players in those same roles now, same order, are Jonathan Hadary, Zoe Wanamaker, Ben Gazzara, Lauren Ambrose, Pablo Schreiber, Peter Kybart, Mark Ruffalo, Ned Eisenberg, and Richard Topol.

I wouldn’t trade them for Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, and Johnny Damon.

Bartlett Sher has somehow got them all talking, not to, but with one another, listening to or not listening to one another, educating one another (old Jacob, young Ralph), infuriating one another, abusing one another, loving one another (and in Hennie’s case, loving much against her will the tough, caustic bastard, Moe Axelrod, who was first to bed her), deceiving one another (in particular poor Sam Feinschreiber), boring one another — but never, never boring us.

This is the play that put into the American dramatic language and general consciousness not only such keystone phrases as “ … so life shouldn’t be printed on dollar bills” and “Go fight City Hall” but “What the hell kind of house is this it ain’t got an orange!” and “Listen, lousy” (as a declaration of love) and “I’m so nervous, look, two times I weighed myself on the subway station” and — ah there, Edward Albee — Moe Axelrod’s summation of the Bronx flat where his hardboiled heart is breaking: “What a dump!”

More yet, it put into the American consciousness the will to think, to fight, to demand a better life, a better nation, in the very moment that FDR’s New Deal was, like 22-year-old Ralph, being born (“I swear to God — I’m one week old!”) — the New Deal which at this very moment is being mashed ever deeper into its grave by the same buccaneers whom an earlier Roosevelt (TR, Myron Berger’s hero) condemned as “malefactors of great wealth.” Bourbons who never learn and never forget.

At the core of this play, and, one is tempted to say, at the core of this ensemble — except that they are each and every one, character and actor, a core — is Bessie Berger, the dictatorial mama who takes no prisoners in her struggle to hold everything together and decent, according to her lights. Once Stella Adler (in a role Clurman forced upon her), Bessie Berger is now Zoe Wanamaker in a performance as solid as a Rodin sculpture with warm blood running in its veins. Though never at a want for words, she needs none when forever yanking the window shades down that her father, the old barber, keeps yanking up. And no words, but a whole drama of its own passes through the silence of the slow, gradual, eyeball-to-eyeball realization — the most terrible moment in Bessie’s life — that her 26-year-old unmarried daughter is pregnant. “You slept good, my lovely lady.”

Her daughter; her son who brings in $16 a week from the warehouse and has a chip on his shoulder about everything; her father with his damned endless Enrico Caruso phonograph records — all this will one day bust Bessie’s gall. Not without cause. When it does:

“Ralphie, I worked too hard all my years to be treated like dirt… Summer shoes you didn’t have, skates you never had, but I bought a new dress every week. A lover I kept — Mr. Gigolo! Did I ever play a game of cards like Mrs. Marcus? Or was Bessie Berger’s children always the cleanest on the block?! Here I’m not only the mother but also the father … ”

It is something to see, something to hear, something to treasure in the storehouse of memory — and so is scared, hurt, eager, put-upon, chaste, all-arms-and-legs Pablo Schreiber (who would have been dubbed “Stretch” when I went to school) as Ralph Berger; and so is seething, just-beautiful enough, dangerous Lauren Ambrose as Hennie; and so is Ned Eisenberg in the always creepy, unenviable role of Uncle Morty, who insults and degrades the dignified old barber who is his own father; and so is Jonathan Hadary as out-of-this-world Myron Berger whose recollections are adrift with wisps of Teddy Roosevelt and Valentino and Nora Bayes singing “When It’s Apple Blossom Time in Normandy.”

“Where are you going, Little Red Riding Hood?” this Myron, vague to the end, asks his decamping daughter. “Nobody knows, Peter Rabbit,” is her answer.

If you can keep from getting moisture in the eyes at that instant, and a hundred others, you’re of sterner stuff than some of the rest of us.

Whom have I left out? Richard Topol as poor Sam Feinschreiber, fresh off the boat, duped to all hell, hideously discovering that his infant daughter is not, in fact, his. Peter Kybart as Schlosser the janitor who complains about the family’s dog, Tootsie, who makes dirty in the hallways — the janitor who, much later, becomes the messenger of tragedy.

Then, finally, crucially, Mark Ruffalo, here from the movies (he knocked the spots off this moviegoer as the meandering brother in Kenneth Lonergan’s “You Can Count on Me”) to create, no, to embody a Moe Axelrod of brassiness, balsiness, woundedness, blindness, insightfulness, hardness, softness, vulnerability, deceit, honesty, con man, aching love — all in one mortal, unified, well-stirred human whole.

And then, really finally, Ben Gazzara, as grizzled, dignified, degraded, unbowed old Jacob Berger, reading his Karl Marx, playing his Caruso records, quoting from the wisdom of the ages, desperately trying to turn things around so that grandson Ralph shall not be trapped into (1) a life that is printed on dollar bills, (2) too quick and too ruinous a marriage. Ben Gazzara, Jacob Berger: One plus one. Equals one.

A number of people — theater people — told me they’d dreaded going to this show for fear that it would be (their word, each of them) “dated.” And found precisely, thrillingly the opposite.

Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust. At the Belasco Theater the American theater is alive and singing. Odets lives.

“Awake and Sing,” by Clifford Odetts. Directed by Bartlett Sher. Through June 25 at the Belasco Theater, 111 W 44th Street, (212-239-6200).


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