Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

Awake And Sing!: Heaven in Three Acts

What's that irresistible melody permeating through every elegant crevice of the Belasco theatre these days? It's the tune of bold optimism embracing words that express the grandest of outer borough poetry. Piercing as the voice of Enrico Caruso, rebellious as the thoughts of Karl Marx and passionate as kid from the Bronx in love, Clifford Odets' Depression-era masterpiece, Awake and Sing! has returned to the theatre of its original glory in director Bartlett Sher's captivating and heart-tugging revival. Be merry, playgoers. This one is heaven in three acts.


Over twelve million Americans were unemployed at the beginning of 1935 when The Group Theatre took a chance and selected this unknown 29-year-old's first attempt at playwriting to be their initial Broadway production. While still in rehearsals, another Odets play, the one-act, Waiting For Lefty, caused such a sensation at a benefit performance for New Theatre Magazine that it moved to Broadway shortly after Awake and Sing!. A companion piece was needed to fill out Lefty's evening, so he wrote Till The Day I Die in four days. Just another fledgling playwright in January of 1935, his first three plays were hits on Broadway by March.


"She's like French words", is one of the ways Ralph Berger (Pablo Schreiber) describes the girl he's crazy about. Though he sleeps on the living room day bed of his family's tiny Bronx walk-up, Ralph has plans to move out and get married, but his mother, Bessie (Zoë Wanamaker), discourages the economically unsound prospect of this orphaned girl with no money. When her single daughter Hennie (Lauren Ambrose) gets unexpectedly pregnant, Bessie arranges for the most advantageous marriage possible, though the young woman is in love with the family's boarder, Moe, a cynical war vet whose leg was shot off the day before Armistice.


The play's main conflict is the everyday power struggle between Bessie, a benevolent matriarchal dictator who believes all must sacrifice for the family's greater good, and her father Jacob (Ben Gazzara) who cherishes his Caruso 78RPM records and the theories of Karl Marx. "Life shouldn't be printed on dollar bills," he advises his grandson.


The plot is more theme oriented than story driven, with characters often making political speeches in place of conversation. It's a characteristic of the play that's sometimes accused of being dated, but in the hands of Sher and his excellent cast Odets' words are vibrant and poetic.


Zoë Wanamaker gives one of the Broadway season's finest performances, making Bessie a tragic figure who willingly accepts her family's resentment as the price she pays for securing for them what she believes to be a better life. Jonathan Hadary, an actor who has been known to remove his spine for a role on more than one occasion, does so again in the most elegant of manner as her ineffectual husband. Though his speaking voice is hesitant, and he sometimes appears to be making an effort to get words out, Ben Gazzara makes for a warm and dignified dreamer as Jacob.


Pablo Schreiber is terrific as the starry-eyed Ralph, while Lauren Ambrose and, especially, Mark Ruffalo are sympathetic as the hard-boiled pair who see little to sing about in their futures. Ned Eisenberg effectively speaks for capitalism at its best, as the successful businessman, Uncle Morty.



 

 

Michael Yeargan's apartment set is used for a simple in concept, but visually fascinating effect that symbolizes Ralph's growing freedom from the family unit and his ability to pursue his dreams. It's a daring move in this otherwise natural production, but it's quite lovely and uplifting, as is the entire evening.

 

 

Photos by Paul Kolnik: Top: Zoë Wanamaker and Mark Ruffalo

Center: Pablo Schreiber and Ben Gazzara

Bottom: Lauren Ambrose and Ben Gazzara

 

 

Regional Awards

Related Stories

From This Author - Michael Dale


Sunday Morning Michael Dale:  My Favorite Cease and Desist LettersSunday Morning Michael Dale: My Favorite Cease and Desist Letters
August 14, 2022

A while back. I was in an audience of theatre fans watching an onstage conversation between Frank Rich and Stephen Sondheim and the subject of unauthorized changes made in regional and amateur productions came up. The composer/lyricist mentioned that he had heard of a production of Company that ended with Bobby committing suicide by shooting himself.

Sunday Morning Michael Dale:  Dear Funny Girl:  Let Julie Benko Sing!Sunday Morning Michael Dale: Dear Funny Girl: Let Julie Benko Sing!
August 7, 2022

Like many theatre fans, I'd been reading the raves she's been getting as Beanie Feldstein's standby, and since I doubted press would be offered comps during her run, I sprung for a ticket to see for myself.

Sunday Morning Michael Dale:  Alison Fraser Thrillingly Reinvents Cat On A Hot Tin Roof's Big MamaSunday Morning Michael Dale: Alison Fraser Thrillingly Reinvents Cat On A Hot Tin Roof's Big Mama
July 31, 2022

A popular stage actor best known for being quirkily funny in musicals (Off-Broadway in March Of The Falsettos, on Broadway in Romance, Romance, The Secret Garden and Gypsy), Fraser reinvents a classic character and turns in a performance that thrills with its gutsy power masked by her character's well-rehearsed elegance.

Sunday Morning Michael Dale:  All Singing! All Dancing! All Legal!  Cannabis! A Viper Vaudeville Opens at La MaMaSunday Morning Michael Dale: All Singing! All Dancing! All Legal! Cannabis! A Viper Vaudeville Opens at La MaMa
July 24, 2022

A collaboration of two of Off-Off-Broadway's favorite historically subversive companies, the HERE production of Cannabis! A Viper Vaudeville, presented at La Mama is an entrancingly fun and educational two-hour festival of song, dance and spoken word, beginning as a relaxing communal experience and evolving into a call for activism.

Sunday Morning Michael Dale: Ukrainian Children Coming To Brooklyn in a Play They Premiered in a Bomb ShelterSunday Morning Michael Dale: Ukrainian Children Coming To Brooklyn in a Play They Premiered in a Bomb Shelter
July 17, 2022

Irondale is arranging for Ukrainian solider Oleg Onechchak's ensemble of child actors to give two performances in Brooklyn of Mom On Skype, which was originally performed in a warehouse-turned-bomb-shelter in the city of Lviv.