Clifford Odets’ Depression-era drama Awake & Sing! has reopened at the Odyssey Theatre for a January extension, exciting news indeed for fans of the kind of big-cast, big-issue Great American Classics that don’t get written anymore.
Odets’ 1935 gem focuses on the Bergers, a working-class Jewish-American family sharing a cramped Bronx apartment at the height of The Great Depression while struggling with money problems, dashed dreams, and in the case of one at least, a disillusionment with capitalism that reflects the playwright’s own views.
Marilyn Fox stars as matriarch Bessie Berger, a woman who’s seen her hopes and dreams thwarted so many times that she’s probably lost count while bossing her milquetoast husband Myron (Robert Lesser) into subservience.
The Bergers’ 20something children Hennie (Melissa Paladino) and Ralph (James Morosini) still live at home, and this being the height of the Great Depression, the family has taken in a lodger, WWI vet Moe Axelrod (Jason Huber), a 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.
Ever the realist, Bessie has been pressing daughter Hennie to show more interest in Sam Feinschreiber (Jeff Marlow), an ambitious albeit mousy Eastern European immigrant, that is when she’s not been hanging up on Ralph’s girlfriend, a young woman she deems not at all right for her boychik.
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 drek hits the fan.
As directed for the Odyssey by Elina de Santos, the Berger family’s life positively crackles with drama, secrets and lies, and a dysfunctionality that proves surprisingly contemporary, as do its themes of idealism vs. pragmatism and generosity vs. greed in a world of haves and (mostly) have-nots.
Fox does bravura work as Bessie, 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.
Octogenarian stage legend Miller is superb as the still feisty Jacob, a terrific Lesser gives us a henpecked shell of a Myron, and recent cast addition Huber could not make for a more dynamic Moe, a man who can be repellant one moment and damned seductive the next.
As for the object of Moe’s affections (and lust), a fiery Paladino digs beneath Hennie’s selfishness to reveal her raw desire to find some shred of happiness away from her discordant family, while recent USC grad Morosini reveals serious acting chops and a whole lot of star quality as Odets’ stand-in Ralph.
Colorful does not begin to describe Fancy’s performance as bombastic money-grubbing Uncle Morty, Marlow is sweet and touching as the pathetically unloved Sam, and Dennis Madden makes a strong impression in his brief appearances as German janitor Schlosser.
Scenic designer Pete Hickok and prop designer Katherine S. Hunt have joined talents to give us a meticulously rendered Bronx apartment compacted into tight Odyssey quarters. Kim DeShazo’s pitch-perfect period costumes, Leigh Allen’s evocative lighting design, and Christopher Moscatiello’s ‘30s-tunes-flavored sound design are all absolutely topnotch.
Awake & Sing! is produced by Beth Hogan and Ron Sossi in association with Marjie Mautner. Tracey Silver is assistant director. Beth Mack is production stage manager, Jennifer Palumbo is stage manager, and James Warnock is assistant stage manager. Melissa Weber Bales is Bessie Berger alternate.
The kind of play people are referring to when they say “They don’t write’em like that anymore,” Awake & Sing! remains as powerful and relevant in 2016 as it did eight decades ago, particularly as brought to still vital life on the Odyssey Theatre stage.
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 South Sepulveda Boulevard, Los Angeles.
January 9, 2015
Photos: Ron Sossi, Enci Box