Odets’ Dramatic Entanglements

Legends linger in “Awake and Sing”

Turning at the door of that Bronx apartment, his Hennie in his arms, Moe Axelrod throws a so-long to her alive and awakened kid brother Ralph. “I wouldn’t trade you for two pitchers and an outfielder,” hard-bitten Moe tells the newly hatched militant-in-the-making as the curtain comes down and the audience rises to its feet with a roar.

Over the tumult, the man directly behind me could be heard declaring to the person next to him: “It’s been a long time since this town’s seen any theater like this.”

You can say that again, brother.

It was not that we’d been watching a dramatic entanglement of people’s lives in a Bronx apartment in the 1930s. It was that we’d been up there in that apartment with them, taking part, one of the family, there in the Bronx or any other place in an America where life is printed on dollar bills, during the Great Depression, or now, or any other time.

Such is the real, tangible, rooted, organic, collaborative achievement of Bartlett Sher’s 2006 staging of the “Awake and Sing!” by Clifford Odets that premiered in a Group Theater production in this very same Belasco Theatre on February 19, 1935, under the direction of Harold Clurman.

The now legendary players as listed in the program then were Art Smith (daydreaming, ineffective Myron Berger, father of Hennie and Ralph), Stella Adler (iron-willed Bessie Beger, head of household, mother of Hennie and Ralph), Morris Carnovsky (Jacob the grandfather, an Old Testament Marxist), Phoebe Brand (fiery Hennie Berger, proud of her body but trapped in it), Jules Garfield (idealistic young Ralph, hungry for something better), Roman Bohnen (Schlosser the janitor), Luther Adler (embittered Moe Axelrod, loser of a leg in World War, wants only one thing—Hennie), J.E. Bromberg (obnoxious, self-satisfied Uncle Morty, garment-district dress-manufacturer), Sanford Meisner (Sam Feinschreiber, the poor immigrant schnook who is conned into marrying pregnant Hennie).

The players in those same roles now, same order, are Jonathan Hadary, Zoe Wanamaker, Ben Gazzara, Lauren Ambrose, Pablo Schreiber, Peter Kybart, Mark Ruffalo, Ned Eisenberg, and Richard Topor.

Bartlett Sher has somehow got them all talking, not to, but with one another, listening to one another, or not listening, educating, infuriating, abusing, loving, deceiving, and even boring one another—but never boring us.

At the core of this play, and, one is tempted to say, at the core of this ensemble, is Bessie Berger, the dictatorial mama who takes no prisoners in her struggle to hold everything together and decent, according to her lights. Once Stella Adler—in a role Clurman forced upon her—Bessie Berger is now Zoe Wanamaker in a performance as solid as a Rodin sculpture with warm blood running in its veins. Though never at a want for words, she needs none when forever yanking the window shades down that her father, the old barber, keeps yanking up. And no words, but a whole drama of its own passes through the silence of the slow, gradual, eyeball-to-eyeball realization—the most terrible moment in Bessie’s life—that her 26-year-old unmarried daughter is pregnant. “You slept good, my lovely lady.”

Her daughter—her son who brings in $16 a week from the warehouse and has a chip on his shoulder about everything—her father with his damned endless Enrico Caruso phonograph records—all this will one day bust Bessie’s gall. Not without cause.

It is something to see, something to hear, something to treasure in the storehouse of memory—and so is scared, hurt, eager, put-upon, chaste, all-arms-and-legs Pablo Schreiber as Ralph Berger; and so is seething, just-beautiful enough, dangerous Lauren Ambrose as Hennie; and so is Ned Eisenberg in the always creepy, unenviable role of Uncle Morty, who insults and degrades the dignified old barber who is his own father; and so is Jonathan Hadary as out-of-this-world Myron Berger whose recollections are adrift with wisps of Teddy Roosevelt and Valentino and Nora Bayes singing “When It’s Apple Blossom Time in Normandy.”

“Where are you going, Little Red Riding Hood?” this Myron, vague to the end, asks his decamping daughter. “Nobody knows, Peter Rabbit,” is her answer.

If you can keep from getting moisture in the eyes at that instant, and a hundred others, you’re of sterner stuff than some of the rest of us.

Whom have I left out? Richard Topol as poor Sam Feinschreiber, fresh off the boat, duped to all hell, hideously discovering that his infant daughter is not, in fact, his. Peter Kybart as Schlosser the janitor who complains about the family’s dog, Tootsie, who makes dirty in the hallways—the janitor who, much later, becomes the messenger of tragedy.

Then, finally, crucially, Mark Ruffalo, here from the movies to create, no, to embody a Moe Axelrod of brassiness, balsiness, woundedness, blindness, insightfulness, hardness, softness, vulnerability, deceit, honesty, con man, aching love—all in one mortal, unified, well-stirred human whole.

And then, really finally, Ben Gazzara, as grizzled, dignified, degraded, unbowed old Jacob Berger, reading his Karl Marx, playing his Caruso records, quoting from the wisdom of the ages, desperately trying turn things around so that grandson Ralph shall not be trapped into a life that is printed on dollar bills, or too quick and too ruinous a marriage. Ben Gazzara, Jacob Berger. One plus one. Equals one.

A number of theater people told me they’d dreaded going to this show for fear that it would be “dated.” And found precisely, thrillingly the opposite.

Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust. At the Belasco Theater the American theater is alive and singing. Odets lives.