A heart-rending ensemble drama by a great American playwright may seem like a guaranteed winner for a theater company like Village Playhouse, but time has not been altogether kind to Clifford Odets, mainly because his plots and characters have been aped and homaged half to death over the past 75 years.
In 1935’s Awake and Sing!, a domineering Jewish mother called Bessie Berger treads her size 10s all over the men in her family. Her husband Myron is punch-drunk from her jabs and jibes. Grandpa Jacob reminds them of the sacrifices it took to get them to America. Impressionable young Ralph seeks direction in life. Uncle Morty is a loud mouthed fat ‘n’ happy capitalist. And Hennie is a promiscuous ingénue. They live in a Bronx tenement, their luxuries dwindling as the Great Depression commences. The proto-social realist storyline borders on soap opera territory at times — one character even says he has “one life to live.” What once was novel is now cliché. Anything new and fresh must come from the characters and the actors who play them. Fortunately, for every line of dialogue that rings familiar, there’s another that reminds us of Odets’ brilliance.
Ryan Ahlert really holds the show together as Moe Axelrod, and it’s a delight when he’s on stage. As a cynical wheeler-dealer with a soft center, he’s the perfect hero for a beleaguered age. Moe’s affection for Hennie allows Ahlert to show a deeper dramatic side as well.
He’s joined by a well-cast group of actors who will be familiar to regular Playhouse patrons. Josh Wilhoit makes an effectively boorish Morty, with hair as slick as his patter. Like Ahlert, he brightens the stage when he’s present, and while we would have liked to see him show more sides to the character, he plays an effectively likeable rogue. Jeff Jordan gives the most natural performance as Myron, the straight man of the play. He doesn’t have any big speeches — Myron just wants a quiet life — but he helps add realism to the slices of home life.
Playing a part beyond his years, Nat Jones creates a multifaceted, ultimately vulnerable version of Jacob. His thick Eastern European accent makes him hard to hear a couple of times, but for the most part, he is soulful and easy to identify with.
The younger members of the cast, Rebecca L. Anderson (Hennie), Jake Hennessy (Sam), and Eric Brown (Ralph) all acquit themselves well. Anderson makes sure that her selfish character remains sympathetic. Hennessy is equally likeable in his role as a put-upon husband. Brown is careful not to get too emotional too quickly, building slowly to Ralph’s epiphany at the end of the play.
The Playhouse stage just isn’t big enough to contain Kathy Summer, who plays Bessie. Summer has taken the Jewish-mother shrug, arms stretched wide, palms upwards, to the extreme. Every other line is punctuated by this gesture — and she has a lot of lines. Summer gives a strong, crowd-pleasing performance, but her over-the-top mannerisms are incredibly distracting. Her appearance would be a lot more powerful if she held back those hands.
It’s always a marvel to see how set designer Keely Enright and set constructor David Reinwald fit so much into their small space. This time, though, their set looks too expansive. Apart from a couple of small upstage rooms, the Berger apartment looks positively spacious. It doesn’t give off that sense of a cramped working-class tenement. However, the period furniture and props are spot-on and a brown color scheme is complemented by Reinwald’s subdued lighting, suggesting that we’re looking at a guileless sepia world of yore.
Director Enright has taken an old-fashioned play with a heart-on-its-sleeve message about helping your fellow man, and she’s made it funny, poignant, and compelling. And if you can see past the clichés, you’ll recognize shades of your own family in the Bergers as they kvetch around the dining table.