If all you knew about New York in the 1930s came from Hollywood movies, you’d think that the city was populated entirely with zany heiresses and egomaniacal divas whose broken legs allowed their talented understudies to go on and become overnight Broadway stars. That’s why Clifford Odet’s Depression-era drama Awake And Sing!, now being revived in an absolutely splendid production at Glendale’s A Noise Within, comes as such an eye-opening surprise. There’s not an heiress, diva, or talented understudy in sight.

Instead, what Broadway offered 1935 audiences was a working-class Jewish-American family living in a cramped apartment, struggling with money problems and dashed dreams, whose older members have grown cynical with life’s disappointments. Since Awake And Sing! reflects Odets’ political persuasion at the time, at least one of them is pretty fed up with capitalism as well.

Lest you think that this translates into an evening of theatrical propaganda, think again. The Berger family’s life in the Bronx positively crackles with drama, with secrets and lies, and with a dysfunctionality that proves surprisingly contemporary … and riveting.

We have matriarch Bessie (Deborah Strang), a woman who’s seen her hopes and dreams thwarted so many times that she’s probably lost count, and her  milquetoast husband Myron (Joel Swetow), a mouse of a man she has bossed into subservience.  Bessie and Myron share their small but tidy Bronx apartment with her elderly father Jacob (Len Lesser), a septuagenarian whose leftist diatribes land on deaf ears.  Their 20something children Hennie (Molly Leland) and Ralph (Adam Silver) still live at home, and this being the height of the Great Depression, the Bergers have taken in a lodger, WWI vet Moe Axelrod (Daniel Reichert), a still youngish man embittered by the loss of a leg in the European trenches the very day before Armistice, and by Hennie’s disinterest in him despite their one night of shared passion.  Meanwhile, Bessie is pressing daughter Hennie to show more interest in Sam Feinschreiber (David Lengel), an ambitious but mousy young Eastern European immigrant—that is, when she’s not hanging up on Ralph’s girlfriend, a young woman she deems not at all right for her boychik.  The only Berger to have made anything of his life is Bessie’s brother Morty (Alan Blumenfeld), precisely the kind of fat cat his father finds so despicable. When Hennie’s frequent nausea turns out to be something other than a case of influenza, and when Grandpa Jacob changes the beneficiary of life insurance policy, the [insert Yiddish word for shit] hits the fan.

In fact there are plenty of Yiddish words sprinkled throughout the terse, dynamic “working-class poetry” that typifies Odets’ distinctively Bronxian dialog—virtually all of which were excised from the original Broadway production. (Apparently 1930s New Yorkers were not that ready for so ethnic a family.)  Director Andrew J. Traister has wisely reinserted the verkachtes and meshuggahs per the playwrights’ original intentions, resulting in dialog that sounds like the real thing, particularly as spoken by a cast as superb as the one assembled under Traister’s pitch-perfect guidance.

The ever astounding Strang adds to her long list of powerful lead performances Bessie Berger, a woman who’s long since given up hope of her husband ever wearing the pants in the family, and a mother not about to let either of her children make their own mistakes.  Swetow so perfectly embodies the henpecked shell of a man that Myron Berger has become that you want to reach out and slap some moxie back into him. Leland creates such an authentic Hennie that it’s easy to find oneself torn between hating her selfishness and empathizing with her desire to find some shred of happiness away from her discordant family.  As Odets’ stand-in Ralph (the playwright was still in his twenties when he wrote Awake And Sing!), Silver makes a memorable A Noise Within debut, subtly revealing the youngest Berger’s inner conflicts in a performance as genuine as they come.

Reichert does standout work as Moe, a man who can be repellant one moment, and damned seductive the next. (No wonder Hennie is confused about her feelings for him.) As the pathetically unloved Sam, Lengel delivers a true gem of a performance, and when he tells Hennie simply, “I would die for you,” only the hardest-hearted will remain unmoved. No one plays bombastic better than Blumenfeld, yet he makes the money-grubbing Uncle Morty oddly sympathetic, even as he schemes to make sure his father’s life insurance policy doesn’t end up where the old man intends. Alan Wasserman does fine work in his brief scenes as janitor Schlosser.

Finally, in the role of Jacob is the phenomenon known as Len Lesser, 87-years-young and now in his seventh decade as an actor.  Just as he did in A Noise Within’s several-times-revived production of Arthur Miller’s The Price, Lesser creates a character so real that you would swear he just happened in from a street in the Bronx—and is still so vital that he can play a 75-year-old and get away with it.

Michael C. Smith’s set design fills the A Noise Within thrust stage with a period-perfect, lived-in-looking dining and living room, beautifully appointed with Merrianne Nedreberg’s 1930s properties.  Julie Keen’s costumes have just the right look for the era and the social class of Awake And Sing!’s characters, as does Monica Lisa Sabedra’s wig, hair, and makeup design.  James P. Taylor lights the set to perfection, even in a between-scene blackout which leaves faint light from the streets casting shadows on translucent curtains and the apartment floor. Scott Kriloff serves as production stage manager.

Over the years, Clifford Odets’ reputation as a playwright has been overtaken by a slightly younger pair of scribes—Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. A Noise Within’s production of Alive And Well, still considered Odets’ masterpiece, makes it clear that the first great born-in-the-20th-century American dramatist is more than worthy of taking his place among more celebrated contemporaries.

A Noise Within, 234 South Brand Blvd., Glendale.

–Steven Stanley
March 31, 2010
Photos: Craig Schwartz

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