A Review by Douglas N. Johnston
The classics must be honored! They must be done and done again for the next generation. They must be accessible to all who want to see and learn from them. Authors of the American classical movement – Arthur Miller, Elmer Rice, Tennessee Williams, and the rest of the roundtable of great scribes need to be … well … to quote one of them … “attention must be paid.”
April James and the Viking Theatre Company have found the perfect way to do that – an atmospheric staged reading of Clifford Odet’s Awake & Sing!
Why a staged reading?
The plays of that era are long, multi-layered and plotted, and usually expensive to do in the proper period professionally. To scale back the cost prohibitive parts and let the work and workers (ironic terms as the play has more than a slight helping of 1930s communism) shine.
Placing her reading in the antique theatre of the Actor’s Temple with names of famous Jewish performers on plaques all around on an old wooden stage was all the set she needed. Looking at it at that perspective it was like watching an early dress rehearsal of the original production with Adler, Clurman and Meisner.
The play deals with the lives of a Jewish immigrant family in the Bronx during the depression (nothing happy there). This play is a perfect example of naturalism as opposed to realism as all the action seems like a snapshot of what has been happening to the family for years. By the time we meet the Bergers and their extended family we can see how life has been taken from them. The damage – physical, emotional, mental, financial, intellectual – has taken a mighty toll. Like Death of Salesman or A Streetcar Named Desire, we are staring at a runaway wagon careening down a hill with no way of its fall breaking easily.
The cast was a distinguished and learned bunch: Rick Grossman and Irene Hourigan captured an unwanted but unfortunately true stereotype of the Jewish immigrant family of the depression: the beaten husband and the forced to take control-thus-becoming-a-shrew wife. Grossman’s open-hearted performance was a fine complement to the bitterness that Hourigan displayed with mastery. It would have been made even more engrossing if there was a moment when Grossman could have taken more control and – in her final painful monologue – Hourigan displayed more tenderness. But one could argue content and era regarding such choices. These two elder statesmen gave very compelling showings.
Their children were played with verve by Athena Colon and Morgan Hooper. Hooper’s confusion as the son finding his way regarding his station in life was a nice contract to Colon’s take-the-reigns attitude as Hennie, the whorish grasping sister. These were excellent choices made by the actors and their director as we got a “like father/mother, like son/daughter” flavor throughout.
A superior showing was given by J.B. Alexander as the prosperous Uncle Morty. Alexander captures the cosmopolitan dandy mystique of the era but peppering it with the immigrant roots from where he came. Cultured tone, great presence, he was a cool blast of AC on a hot day. The same can be said for Aston Crosby as the family’s patriarch, Jacob. His bursts of biblical and communist soliloquies were riveting, his connection to each family member perfect and his final moments painful – from the destruction of his treasured record collection to the subsequent end-of-scene. William D. McAndrews gave a bit of historical humor to the secondary character of the janitor of the run-down building. We are so used to the sitcom janitor that to see a tired old man angry at everything was at times jarring, at others humorous.
A great performance was given by Andrew Rothkin as Moe Axelrod, the prosperous neighbor and unsuccessful suitor to Hennie. Rothkin’s physicality (handling the character’s war-injury with total commitment and consistency) along with his high-toned, thick-tongued Jewish accent made for a highly-compelling performance – mixing a broken heart with an agile mind. We got a good blend of rich man/poor man out of him. His scenes with Alexander really showed a character study of the depression-era businessman.
The finest showing of the evening goes to Alan Smith as Sam Feinschreiber – a naïve Russian immigrant who has been duped into marrying the scheming Hennie – even being made to believe her child was his. Smith’s every move was well-planned and consistent with the character and the era. His mousy demeanor and thick Russian brogue took us in from the first line. His intermittent speeches including one about the stress of being in a loveless marriage were engrossing and his final line – an expression of love to his hateful wife – was heartbreaking. Odets gave this character all the genuine feelings and Smith ran with them.
April James is to be commended for this great undertaking and praised for her clever use of location and rehearsal costume. Less set would have been welcome however as it seemed a tight fit when there was a full company on the stage; and far too much can be said against her choice of Sunday night for this gem. Maybe next time, a Saturday – after Shabbos.