Clifford Odets’ first play, “Awake and Sing,” is considered his masterpiece. A fortuitous product of zeitgeist, psychosocial climate and synchronicity, the work has become a holy relic of Depression-era American culture.
Glendale’s estimable classical theater rep company, A Noise Within, presents “Awake and Sing” now through May 23. The plot concerns three generations of a Jewish immigrant family, struggling to survive during the harshest years of the Great Depression.
It is impossible to discuss “Awake and Sing” without some background. The privileged son of a successful Russian-Jewish immigrant family, Clifford Odets had dropped out of high school to pursue a lackluster career in poetry, before embarking on a lackluster career as an actor. Shortly after the dawn of the Great Depression, Odets joined the fledgling Group Theatre, a progressive Noo Yawk theatre company with Russian populist ideals. His father’s business continued to prosper, even in the devastated American economic landscape, making it possible for the young artiste to continue in his theatrical pursuits.
The strongly socialistic “Awake and Sing,” Odets’ first play for the Group, was rejected three times by the company’s leadership. Joining the American Communist Party in 1934, Odets used a taxi drivers’ strike as the inspiration for his second play, “Waiting for Lefty.” Borrowing heavily from Communist ideology and starring future legendary film director Elia Kazan, the play was a huge success for the company. The play brought Odets unexpected fame and fortune, and the Group Theatre’s leader, Lee Strasberg, next produced “Awake and Sing” to capitalize – you should pardon the expression – on the playwright’s new celebrity.
Odets heeded Hollywood’s call, continuing to spout his socialist rhetoric from the comfort of his increasingly plush, cashmere-upholstered ivory tower, while bedding a prodigious number of young movie starlets. Going against their previous populist policies in order to stimulate ticket sales, the Group hired their star playwright’s Hollywood friends for Odets’ and the ensemble’s greatest success, “Golden Boy,” in 1937. Their popularity dwindling as the country recovered, the Group dissolved in 1941.
Dismissed by some critics as mere socialist propaganda, Odets’ major Group Theatre plays of the 1930s harshly criticize “exploitive economic systems” – capitalism – and “self-serving profiteers” – entrepreneurs. In 1952, Odets was called before the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee. He cooperated fully with HUAC, disavowing his communist affiliations and naming names of former colleagues and friends, who subsequently suffered industry blacklisting.
The ANW production of “Awake and Sing” looks gorgeous. The set by Michael Smith is a richly detailed, perfect period rendering of a shabby New York apartment. But, oy, vey… Under director Andrew Traister, Odets’ characters’ less-savory aspects become even more repugnant. The actors laboriously offer a hodge-podge of styles, combining elements of operatic melodrama with shtick, ponderous gravity with over-the-top histrionics, and barely-there naturalism with caricature. With the tender ballad, “My Yiddishe Mama” underscoring the proceedings, that stereotypical harridan of a Jewish mother, Bessie Berger (the usually brilliant Deborah Strang) emerges a self-serving monster. Her daughter Hennie (Molly Leland) becomes a real curva (you should only imagine what that word means…). Except for the bitter, one-legged World War I vet, Moe (Daniel Reichert) and gluttonous capitalist Uncle Morty (Alan Blumenfeld), the men are ineffectual shlemiels. Only veteran Len Lesser in a masterful, restrained performance as Commie grandfather Jacob, and Adam Silver as young idealist Ralph, manage to avoid the compelling vortex of Odets’ self-loathing excess.
A Noise Within is located at 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale. To purchase tickets or for a full season brochure, call (818) 240-0910, ext.1, or visit www.ANoiseWithin.org.