What's that irresistible melody permeating through every elegant crevice of the Belasco theatre these days? It's the tune of bold optimism embracing words that express the grandest of outer borough poetry. Piercing as the voice of Enrico Caruso, rebellious as the thoughts of Karl Marx and passionate as kid from the Bronx in love, Clifford Odets' Depression-era masterpiece, Awake and Sing! has returned to the theatre of its original glory in director Bartlett Sher's captivating and heart-tugging revival. Be merry, playgoers. This one is heaven in three acts.
Over twelve million Americans were unemployed at the beginning of 1935 when The Group Theatre took a chance and selected this unknown 29-year-old's first attempt at playwriting to be their initial Broadway production. While still in rehearsals, another Odets play, the one-act, Waiting For Lefty, caused such a sensation at a benefit performance for New Theatre Magazine that it moved to Broadway shortly after Awake and Sing!. A companion piece was needed to fill out Lefty's evening, so he wrote Till The Day I Die in four days. Just another fledgling playwright in January of 1935, his first three plays were hits on Broadway by March.
"She's like French words", is one of the ways Ralph Berger (Pablo Schreiber) describes the girl he's crazy about. Though he sleeps on the living room day bed of his family's tiny Bronx walk-up, Ralph has plans to move out and get married, but his mother, Bessie (Zoë Wanamaker), discourages the economically unsound prospect of this orphaned girl with no money. When her single daughter Hennie (Lauren Ambrose) gets unexpectedly pregnant, Bessie arranges for the most advantageous marriage possible, though the young woman is in love with the family's boarder, Moe, a cynical war vet whose leg was shot off the day before Armistice.
The play's main conflict is the everyday power struggle between Bessie, a benevolent matriarchal dictator who believes all must sacrifice for the family's greater good, and her father Jacob (Ben Gazzara) who cherishes his Caruso 78RPM records and the theories of Karl Marx. "Life shouldn't be printed on dollar bills," he advises his grandson.
The plot is more theme oriented than story driven, with characters often making political speeches in place of conversation. It's a characteristic of the play that's sometimes accused of being dated, but in the hands of Sher and his excellent cast Odets' words are vibrant and poetic.
Zoë Wanamaker gives one of the Broadway season's finest performances, making Bessie a tragic figure who willingly accepts her family's resentment as the price she pays for securing for them what she believes to be a better life. Jonathan Hadary, an actor who has been known to remove his spine for a role on more than one occasion, does so again in the most elegant of manner as her ineffectual husband. Though his speaking voice is hesitant, and he sometimes appears to be making an effort to get words out, Ben Gazzara makes for a warm and dignified dreamer as Jacob.
Pablo Schreiber is terrific as the starry-eyed Ralph, while Lauren Ambrose and, especially, Mark Ruffalo are sympathetic as the hard-boiled pair who see little to sing about in their futures. Ned Eisenberg effectively speaks for capitalism at its best, as the successful businessman, Uncle Morty.