Friday, September 18, 2009

Awake and Sing!: It Deserves the Exclamation Point

NOTE: Some spoilers ahead for Awake and Sing!, because I discuss its plot construction.

Having read Clifford Odets' play Awake and Sing! last month, I was glad to see the Aurora Theater's production and learn how it plays onstage. Though it is definitely a "kitchen-sink drama" (not at all a "cinematic" play), it moves at a good pace, propelled by the fast-talking dialogue. The plot developments still have the power to surprise: when the janitor announced that Jacob had fallen off the roof and died, the audience literally became abuzz with whispers. These whispers, I guess, expressed sorrow at this likable character's death, and shock at the suddenness of it, shading into speculation over whether it was really an accident, or suicide--just the effect that Odets would have wanted! (And if you examine the script, you'll see that Jacob's death is very carefully set up--but when you see the play for the first time, it comes as a surprise. A really nifty trick.) I also like how the 1-year jump in time between Act I and Act II is something that Odets expects you to figure out gradually, rather than feeding it to you as exposition.

Even though the Aurora is not one of the Bay Area's largest theaters, their production had a terrifically accomplished cast. At first I thought that the actor who played Ralph looked too old for his 22-year-old character, but he grew on me. All the same, Ralph, though ostensibly the hero, is not the best-written role in the play--he's kind of a standard-issue "idealistic youth looking for his place in the world," but many of the other roles are wonderfully pungent character parts. I especially liked Charles Dean as the sweetly hapless father, Myron; and Ray Reinhardt perfectly fit Odets' description of Grandpa Jacob: "an old Jew with living eyes in his tired face." Reinhardt is nearly 80 years old and was a little boy in the Bronx at the time Odets wrote this play--so his performance had a special poignancy and authenticity to it, a link to history.

When watching old plays like this, certain lines sometimes jump out with a surprising contemporary relevance. Here's a moment that made everyone in the theater think of the current health care debate: Moe Axelrod lost a leg in World War I and says that he has three wooden legs in the closet: "Uncle Sam gives them out free." Uncle Morty, a successful bourgeois businessman, replies, "Maybe if Uncle Sam gave out less legs we could balance the budget!"

A moment that would not pass muster in a contemporary play: Moe, at his lowest ebb, says, "What I think a' women? Take 'em all, cut 'em into little pieces like a herring in a Greek salad. A guy in France had the right idea--dropped his wife in a bathtub fulla acid." The cruelty and misogyny of those lines is shocking--from a guy who is ultimately supposed to be the hero, the right man for Hennie! Though we know that Moe doesn't really plan to chop anyone up (he feels betrayed, his pride has been wounded and he's talking tough), I am glad we have reached a point where no contemporary playwright could get away with having a sympathetic character talk about women in this way.

Overheard while leaving the theater: "Yes, the grandfather was very loving... But he was a Marxist!" I have to say, though "Marxist" is a dirty word to many Americans, I didn't expect that it would be that way in the People's Republic of Berkeley! And this judgment echoes the cruel mistake that Uncle Morty makes, in the play--judging Jacob for the unrealistic ideas in his head, not for the love in his heart.

I also overheard one person call the play "dark" and another call it "depressing," which just baffles me. Odets, with his agitprop and his speech-making, is the textbook example of a playwright who believed theater could change the world for the better--which is an optimistic, progressive attitude. (Heck, look at the title: Awake and Sing!--with an exclamation point!) All right, I agree the ending no longer seems quite as cheerful as Odets intended: he seems to think that everything will be solved once Ralph becomes a Marxist and Hennie runs off with Moe, while a modern audience is more skeptical. But that certainly doesn't make the play depressing! Indeed, this ambiguity in the ending--though perhaps unintentional--saves it from being mere agitprop.

It kind of amazes me that so few people know about Awake and Sing!, when two plays that it obviously influenced--The Glass Menagerie and Death of a Salesman--are considered major American classics. (Amanda Wingfield, being an overbearing mother in a low-rent apartment, is like a Southern-belle version of Bessie Berger--and Willy Loman's death is an echo of Grandpa Jacob's.) Both these plays, incidentally, fit my idea of "depressing" much more than Odets' play does. In The Glass Menagerie, none of the characters physically die, but a girl's soul is brutally snuffed out. In Awake and Sing!, a man dies, but his soul lives on.

Image: Jacob gives his son Morty a haircut, while Ralph talks to them and Bessie sets the table. Photo by David Allen,

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