Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Survival, Barely, in The Great Depression

IT is easy to dismiss ''Awake and Sing!''
Clifford Odets's first full length play (1935) might be seen as dated, schematic and sentimental. ''Drowsy and Off Key'' read one review headline when the play was revived on Broadway in 1984.

But hold on. In the apartment in the Bronx where the play takes place, the Berger family worries that ''no money is coming in.'' People are losing their homes and furniture is on the streets, Bessie Berger says, worrying about how ''the whole cockeyed world is changing'' and what will become of them.

For the Berger family -- Bessie's husband, Myron, a law school dropout; Hennie, the surly daughter who is pregnant by an unfindable man; Hennie's duped and wimpy husband, Sam Feinschreiber, and Ralph, the dreamer son who just wants to burst out -- worry is a justifiable way of life. And food is the basis for the oft-repeated command ''Go eat'' as well as an expression of love, there being no other way anyone is capable of showing it.

Yes, in the psychobabble mode, the Bergers are the very model of a dysfunctional lot, except that the root is social and historical, not psychoanalytical. ''I Got the Blues'' was the play's working title. For blues, read depression. But Odets was writing about the Great Depression -- and all recriminations, animosities, bitterness and loss have to do with the struggle to survive an existence of inflicted pettiness. Money was talking, but not to the Bergers.

The characters who speak most eloquently for the playwright's vision are grandfather Jacob and the son Ralph. The rebel Jacob, regretting a passive life, calls himself ''a man full of golden opportunities who drank instead a glass of tea.'' In his room, Jacob plays Caruso singing ''O Paradiso'' on the Victrola, insisting that ''life should have some dignity.'' If Jacob has one recurring armchair battle cry, it is that ''life shouldn't be written on dollar bills.'' It is with care for an American classic that Ugo N. Toppo, artistic director of Rainbow Theater Inc. in Stamford, is bringing back a play so authentically fixed in its time it is truly timeless. But Mr. Toppo's cast plays with such concentration on the cadences of a Jewish family's idiomatic language that their contrived sounds all too often border on stereotype.

In an alarmingly caricaturish performance, Aurelia Mills as Bessie Berger comes off as the all-time irredeemable controlling monster mother (and mother-in-law and wife).

But Bessie deserves a fairer shake. Ask those who saw Tovah Feldshuh's stunning performance in the role in last year's acclaimed revival at the Jewish Repertory Theater on East 91st Street in Manhattan.

Credit Jim Shankman
with the evening's best work as the racketeer Moe Axelrod -- ''a lazy four flusher who'd steal the glasses off a blind man.'' Mr. Shankman has a grasp of characterization beyond attitude, of passionate sweep beyond Moe's sleazy sexist self-interest. Most of the others are grounded save for John Kooi who tries to soar as Ralph.

Romantic and life-changing hopes are pinned on Ralph to reclaim the spirit ''to climb mountains'' where money doesn't talk to anyone. It was up to Ralph to represent the idealistic Odets. In a short documentary film, ''The Sum and Substance of Clifford Odets,'' made a half-year before the playwright's death in 1963 at the age of 57, his response to the film's title was ''the loss of innocence.''

''Awake and Sing!'' is a dead-on reflection of a bygone life and of lives still scarred. People can die of broken hearts. Add flashes of inimitable poetic imagery, like the title. Who says dated?

''Awake and Sing!'' at the Leonhardt Studio, Rich Forum, 307 Atlantic Street, Stamford. 203-325-4466. Performances Thursday through Saturday.

Photo: Norman Allen, left, and John Kooi in ''Awake and Sing!'' (John Vecchiolla)