BWW Reviews: National Asian-American Theater Company Revives Clifford Odets' AWAKE AND SING

By: Aug. 21, 2013
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The National Asian American Theater Company's solid if unexceptional production of Awake and Sing, Clifford Odets 1935 drama of a struggling immigrant Jewish family in The Bronx, is opening just a few days after the 50th anniversary of the death of Odets, whose heyday as a playwright was almost 80 years ago. He has been experiencing something of a renaissance in New York. Last year, Lincoln Center revived Odets' 1937 melodrama Golden Boy to great acclaim, and later in the season the Roundabout Theater Company revived Odets' 1949 play The Big Knife, to much less acclaim.

Awake and Sing is often considered his best play, the story of the extended Berger family in the Bronx. Ralph (the clear stand-in for Odets) is the frustrated son who feels hemmed in by the family's poverty - "All I want's a chance to get to first-base" - and by the family itself. But it is to Odets' credit that Ralph is only one of nine characters, each with a rich tale to tell - from Jacob, his radical grandfather who can't find work as a barber and plays opera records in his room, to Moe, the angry, well-meaning disabled war veteran-turned-racketeer who pines for Ralph's sister Hennie. Each is given lines that prompted one publication to call Odets "the poet of the Jewish middle class." (Jacob: "In my day, the propaganda was for God. Now it's for success.")

When the play debuted - starring future movie star John Garfield and future theater gurus Sanford Meisner and Stella Adler, all members of the now-legendary Group Theater - the critic Brooks Atkinson hailed it as "a drama that is full of substance and vitality" but one that suffered, in the first two acts at least, from "a lack of clarity and simplicity." For what it's worth, the play is the only one by Odets to make it to Entertainment Weekly's recent list of the 50 best plays of the past 100 years.

The NAATCO production has the disadvantage of arriving just a few years after Lincoln Center's indelible 2006 production of the play, which won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play, and featured such incomparable veteran performers as Ben Gazzara and Zoe Wanamaker, and such now-familiar names as Mark Ruffalo, Pablo Schreiber and Lauren Ambrose.

For those of us who saw Awake and Sing at Lincoln Center, the new production in the more intimate Walker Space (which normally houses the Soho Rep) is unlikely to set off any great sparks.

Although Odets play is about three generations of a Jewish family during the Great Depression, the NAATCO production, cast with Asian-American actors, has not changed the script, nor moved the setting - to, say, Flushing in 2013. Keeping a play intact for an Asian-American cast is NAATCO's (you'll excuse the expression) shtick. For 24 years, the company has been putting "Asian faces on a non-Asian repertory," as they put it, in the belief that "new insights about old works can come from unexpected faces."

To get to those insights in Awake and Sing, one must overcome a few jarring incongruities - characters with names like Moe and Myron Berger and Jacob and Uncle Morty; the Yiddish words and Jewish inflections ("A girl 26 don't grow younger," Bessie admonishes her daughter Hennie.) There is also the challenge of the cast members clearly not belonging to the same family; some are East Asian, some South Asian. How is the open-minded theatergoer supposed to react to this? If we suspend disbelief about their implausible diversity, should we then also ignore the difference between the ethnicity of the actors in this production and that of the characters as set forth in the script?

Ultimately, these very challenges helped inspire reflection on the similarities between immigrant families then and now.

A common argument for what is usually called non-traditional casting is that it gives great actors a chance to play parts that would otherwise be closed off to them. That's frankly the lesser argument here. The cast in the NAATCO production is competent; only occasionally more than that. The highlight is one explosive scene between Moe the racketeer (Sanjit De Silva) and Ralph's sister Hennie (Teresa Avia Lim) that suggests how riveting Clifford Odets can be.

Awake and Sing runs through September 8 at 46 Walker Street.

Photographs by William P. Steele: Top: Alok Tewari and Jon Norman Schneider; Middle: Henry Yuk and Sanjit De Silva; Bottom (clockwise from left): Alok Tewari, Mia Katigbak, Teresa Avia Lim, Jon Norman Schneider, Henry Yuk.


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