As The Odyssey Theatre celebrates its 46th Season, Beth Hogan and Ron Sossi’s production of Clifford Odets’ AWAKE AND SING! (coproduced with Marjie Mautner) reflects all of the professionalism and certainly important theatre of our times The Odyssey has been known for all these years. Odets’ cast for the 1935 Broadway show at the Belasco Theatre featured Stella Adler as Bessie Berger and John Garfield as her son, Ralph. Sanford Meisner filled a supporting role. These greats were pals with the playwright and imagining the power of this production is wonderful.
Twenty years ago Marilyn Fox played the overbearing matriarch Bessie Berger. In the play today, still echoing Odets’ cry for creativity and fairness, she returns to powerfully bring Bessie back to life. Tour de force is too mild a term, as Fox and company roar to life and make the eighty year old play as contemporary as anything we might see today. Odets’ handle on the human condition and even with his poetry of ancient language, the cast elevates the story straight into our hearts.
I tried to imagine how this play, mounted in 1935 at the Belasco Theatre with the likes of Adler and Meisner in the cast, must have sounded to the theatre audience of the time. A nickel for a haircut. Pennies spent like dimes or more? A dollar was worth about $17.50 in today’s value. Bringing home twenty bucks a week would come to $350.00. Almost a living wage? A nickel for a haircut would have been just shy of a buck. In these days after the depression, Bessie reminds her family and anyone who will listen that families are being put out of their homes right and left. Thrift is essential.
Odets’ voice rings brilliantly in every character under Elina de Santos’ deft direction. Pete Hickok’s brilliant set is one that David Belasco himself would have applauded. Every detail is attended to. It is the perfect canvas for this epic story to unfold. A slight glitch in the lighting at rise is quickly forgotten as the Berger family struggles through their evening meal. The pecking order is well defined. Excellent James Morosini as the kid, twenty two year old Ralph, is filled with dreams and angst and love for the girl he pines for. He speaks for the new generation. He’ll fly to California. He’ll conquer the stars. It is his line that echoes at the final moment.
The dance of these characters ebbs and flows with grace. Three acts in just over two hours rush by flawlessly. Grandfather, Jacob, Allan Miller, speaks for the past and his love of Caruso and the idea of loving one another falls to the ground. Bessie’s cruel tirade in Act III shows the frustration that she has always harbored and brings the dramatic conclusion to the play. Jacob’s advice to Ralph, however, sticks with him. Awake and Sing!
Beautiful Melissa Paladino’s Hennie is in trouble. It’s telegraphed in subtle ways until the truth comes out. Again, imagining the culture in 1935 and how the general population dealt with unwed pregnancies is a conundrum. Bessie’s reaction says it all as she connives to quickly find a husband for her errant daughter. Enter Moe Axelrod, (David Agranov) who has some dough and knows how to get it. He’s hot for Hennie, but initially, she will have none of it. Some of the most beautifully dated lines come from Moe who really loves Hennie. Robert Lesser as the hen pecked and compliant husband, Myron Berger is mostly guided by our current phrase: “Happy Wife. Happy Life…” Overbearing and wearing the ‘capitalist black hat’ is Bessie’s successful brother, Uncle Morty, beautifully captured by Richard Fancy. Is it a sin to make your fortune on sweatshop schmatas? His wealth helps support the Bergers. Bessie treats him like a king. He flaunts his success and almost succeeds in cheating young Ralph as the play winds to a close.
Enter the unsuspecting husband and ‘father’ of Hennie’s baby, Sam (Gary Patent). English is not a first language for Sam and his bubble is about to be burst. Oy!
All together, the excellent direction of de Santos with a professional cast hitting every mark and playing in a natural style at once with what must have been the style of Odets’ era, it all comes down to doing the right thing. A Jewish family must stick together as best they can to survive. Jacob’s advice to young Ralph in Act One reverberates in the dénouement. He must find his own way and Awake and Sing!
Kim DeShazo’s costumes and excellent tech credits envelop the audience and enhance the words. This message of sadness and hope emerges, ringing as true today as it must have rung all those eighty years ago.
AWAKE AND SING by Clifford Odets
2055 S. Sepulveda
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Through JANUARY 31, 2016
Tickets and Information:
310 477 2055 ext. 2