Clifford Odets’ drama “Awake and Sing” opened in 1935 as a production of the influential Group Theater.
Dealing with the exigencies of poverty suffered by a Bronx family, it was one of the first plays outside of the Yiddish theater to put a definitive Jewish family on stage and to provide them with simple, colloquial language, an English infused with the rhythms of Yiddish.
Three years later, the play returned with a Yiddish-speaking cast in the Federal Theatre 1938 production. There have been many revivals since then, including with an all-Asian cast. Now “Awake and Sing” has returned to its cultural roots, using the 1938 Yiddish translation by Chaver Paver, in a new production by the New Yiddish Rep at the 14th Street Y, with English supertitles.
Like many artists and writers in the 1930s, Odets felt rage and despair at the crushing hardship of the Depression and looked to socialism and communism as a more humane alternative to the American economic system and its endless scrabble for money and status. Accordingly, “Awake and Sing” offers two solutions to that dilemma.
The large family in the play, the Bergers, is as obsessed with money as are all who don’t have enough. Bessie Berger, the matriarch, played by Ronit Asheri-Sandler, is the leader of the realist camp. Living in a large Bronx apartment and struggling to make do, she hopes that her children, Ralph and Hennie, will manage to snatch some security from their jobs or relationships. Her husband, Myron (Eli Rosen), is a lackadaisical shlemiel, but Bessie’s true antagonist is her father, Jacob, who lives with them.
An idealist clinging to the dream of a life of dignity for working people, a life “that is not printed on dollar bills,” Jacob (David Mandelbaum) has put his faith in his grandson Ralph (Moshe Lobel) and plies him with socialist propaganda all day long. The older Hennie (an excellent Lea Kalisch) is trapped between the dialectical visions of Bessie and Jacob. Enraged by her mother’s constant nagging to link up with the recent immigrant Sam Feinschreiber (Luzer Twersky), she rejects another suitor, Moe Axelrod (an effective Gera Sandler), a flashy wheeler dealer also firmly in the pragmatist camp.
What saves Odets’ work from being merely agitprop is the quality of the performances, and they are mixed at best in this production. The role of Bessie is especially tricky; she can easily come across as the worst of the stereotypical Jewish mothers — grasping, manipulative, alternately cajoling and demanding, endlessly intrusive. If we don’t see her bottomless fear of losing the little her family has and if we don’t see her own squelched desires, then she’s just a harridan, and the idealists win the day without much of a battle. Here, Moe has taken up the fight for the pragmatists; because he’s willing to ignore social proprieties — something Bessie never could do — he is a more convincing proponent of getting along to get what you want. A wounded veteran, Moe doesn’t expect anything from the government or from anyone else. His assorted pursuits as a bootlegger and bookie keep him flush, another indication from Odets that capitalism is little more than legalized gangsterism.
Odets was a major influence on the next generation of playwrights, including Arthur Miller, whose “Death of a Salesman” covers much of the same thematic ground as “Awake and Sing.” New Yiddish Rep presented a transcendent production of the Miller play two years ago, which captured the Jewish essence of that work, a play that never mentions Jews or anything Jewish. “Awake and Sing” is overtly Jewish, but because it is so tightly bound to a particular time and milieu, it feels less relevant today. That’s odd, since people are still struggling to maintain their place in the economic order. Those people tend not to be Jews nowadays, but the desperation is the same.
I saw this production early in its run, so the performances may have improved as the ensemble became more comfortable and cohesive. New Yiddish Rep’s track record is solid and even a less-than-perfect production is worth seeing.