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Awake and Sing: Group Rep Presents Rousingly Resonant Clifford Classic

awake and sing

Couch, Patrick Burke, Michele Bernath, Christine Joelle. Standing, Troy Whitaker, Robert Gallo, Stan Mazin. (Photo: Sherry Netherland)

I love me some Clifford Odets, and I guess you can call me a “groupie” who’ll see any play by the Group Theatre’s greatest dramatist. Newcomers to Odets’ oeuvre as well as long-time fans familiar with this avatar of proletarian theater are in for a treat at North Hollywood’s Lonny Chapman Theatre.

If you look “good Karma” and/or “serendipity” up you could find a perfect example being that the Group Repertory Theatre -- a company with ancestral links to the fabled Group Theatre -- is currently presenting Awake and Sing! This Clifford classic was first presented by the venerable Group Theatre in 1935 at Broadway’s Belasco Theatre, directed by Harold Clurman, co-starring those thespians of the pantheon who, like Clurman, became legendary acting teachers, Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner, along with other Group talents.

Awake and Sing! revolves around a hard-pressed Jewish family in the Bronx struggling during the Depression -- no, not the current economic downturn, the one 80 years ago. This is not the stuff that escapist stage diversions of that era by the Lunts and Cole Porter were made of -- Odets’ drama is noteworthy for the realism of its plot and dialogue that naturalistically depict a slice of ethnic New York working class life. There are bills to be paid, dirty diapers to be changed and washed and the characters’ lines are sprinkled with Yiddish and slang words that 1930s theatergoers presumably heard in the street, but were unaccustomed to hearing in a legit theater.

Bessie (stage and TV actress Michele Bernath) wears the pants in the Berger household, which is actually a cramped NY apartment. In the hands of a lesser actress the family matriarch may have come across like a shrill shrew, “ballbuster,” stereotypical castrating “bitch.” But Bernath infuses her tired, worn out Bessie with compassionate insight, poignantly presenting her point of view as the glue that holds this troubled tribe together -- whether they like it or not, dammit!

awake and sing

Stan Mazin, Robert Gallo, Michele Bernath(Sherry Netherland)

Patrick Burke convincingly plays Bessie’s browbeaten, emasculated husband Myron, a “nebbish” who is, Odets wrote, “heartbroken without being aware of it.” Hemmed in by hard times their children -- tall, lanky ChristineJoëlleas Hennie and the smoldering Troy Whitaker as Ralph, who slaves away at a menial job yet is unable to afford a pair of new shoes and sleeps in the living room -- dream of better, freer lives.

The family’s most interesting character is the 70-ish Jacob, but because this barber hasn’t amounted to much in the capitalist sense (that is, Jacob hasn’t made a lot of money), instead of being the Bergers’ patriarch he is what Odets calls “a constant boarder” in the Berger home. Infusing him with humanity, stage/screen stalwart Stan Mazin’s Jacob is the embodiment of the Jewish socialist tradition -- Ben Shahn’s classic image of Sacco and Vanzetti can be glimpsed in his room, a bastion of culture where Jacob retreats to listen to Caruso records or read his books by Marx. But like those Italian anarchists, Jacob seems doomed, consigned to the dust heap of history by the capitalist system the would-be Bolshevik rails against, but as he nears the ends of his days, has, alas, been unable to overthrow. Jacob longs to transmit his idealism, in particular to long suffering Ralphie, with whom he shares that coveted grandparent/grandchild bond.

Uruguayan Marcos Cohen (who appeared in Robert De Niro’s 2006 anti-CIA epic The Good Shepherd)plays Sam Feinschreiber, the immigrant sap who woos Hennie, much to his woe. In the country where money doesn’t just talk, it screams, Uncle Morty is an American success story -- translation: he’s made a pile of dough (by exploiting others). Robert Gallo cunningly captures the essence of this businessman, with hand gestures revealing that the family’s rich uncle is a pretentious poseur, who’s really nothing but an avaricious if avuncular peddler.

Moe Axelrod is a disabled World War I veteran full of yearning, and every vet should flock to see stage/screen actor Daniel Kaemon’s depiction of this wounded warrior. Axelrod is an emblem of the down and out fellas sung about in Gold Diggers of 1933’s grand finale, the Busby Berkeley-directed “Forgotten Man” dance number, that ode to the Great Depression’s displaced males who went and fought their country’s battles but are then neglected, with nothing to show for their sacrifices. Except, instead of submissively standing on breadlines waiting for handouts Axelrod apparently turns to illegal activities to make his daily bread -- and then some. Kaemon’s passionate outbursts make Moe -- who realizes that he has just been used as cannon fodder and speaks eloquently of the horror of war -- this production’s most compelling character.

awake and sing

Michele Bernath, Christine Joelle, Patrick Burke

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What paths will the dramatis personae pursue? That of individual gratification or doing what’s best for the collective? The different directions the characters take indicate, as Danton Stone, the New York theater/film/TV actor, for whom Lanford Wilson had written lead roles for, insightfully said in a conversation with this critic: “Odets wrote as if he was a divided soul. It seems to me he's often steeped in divisions of selflessness and hedonism; family obligation and ambition; and loyalty versus the sheer adventure of freedom and not being tied to an ideology,” said Stone, who has recently re-located to L.A.

This division can be seen in Odets’ own psyche. He joined the Communist Party U.S.A. then attained immense success on Broadway and in Hollywood, where his stage hit Golden Boy was adapted for the screen. The writer of pro-worker and anti-Nazi plays romanced movie starlet Frances Farmer and more or less “went Hollywood.” As I recall there used to be a joke about Odets proselytizing N.Y. playwrights, who idolized him, saying they wanted to be like him -- not in terms of writing proletarian theatre, but by becoming rich and famous. John Turturro mercilessly parodied Odets as the N.Y bard-turned-L.A.-screenwriter in the Coen Brothers’ 1991 satire Barton Fink.

And “Fink,” alas, is right -- in 1952, during his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, the internally split Odets alternately sparred and collaborated with HUAC’s grand inquisitors. As with his onetime Group comrade Elia Kazan -- who shamefully testified before HUAC the same year and became what author Victor Navasky called in Naming Names “the quintessential informer” -- Odets’ capitulation to HUAC’s Torquemadas is a stain on his record.

Nevertheless, this dialectical division within Odets’ soul propels the protagonists in Awake and Sing! generating great dramatic tension. How ironic that the impetus Jacob gives mousey Ralphie to assert himself does not come in the form of Marxist consciousness, but rather in that most bourgeois of things: money. Group Rep’s Artistic Director Larry Eisenberg skillfully directs each member of the ensemble who trod the boards on Chris Winfield’s set, which has great verisimilitude and may make viewers feel as if they are in a Bronx living room, instead of a North Hollywood playhouse.

awake and sing

Daniel Kaemon, Christine Joelle

In an interview with Steve Peterson provided in Awake’s!  press notes Eisenberg said that the naming of Group Rep “was a deliberate tribute to that original company. Lonny [Chapman] had been mentored by Elia Kazan who was one of the original members of the Group Theatre. Kazan brought Lonny to California for a role in East of Eden opposite James Dean. Lonny had also been a close associate of Lee Strasberg at The Actors Studio in New York and through him, learned about the early days of the Group. It was Strasberg, Harold Clurman and Cheryl Crawford who created the Group. Lonny felt that the original Group was the birthplace of modern American acting and the place where [Constantin] Stanslavski's methods were first introduced. In addition to Strasberg, Stella Adler, Sandy Meisne, and Bobby Lewis were among the original members. These were the people who went on to teach acting the way Lonny had learned it and therefore, the original Group represented an ideal for Lonny; it was one that he wanted to honor and to use as an example of the kind of work and environment he wanted to create.”

This reviewer had the colossally good fortune to see the 2006 revival of Awake on the Great White Way co-starring Ben Gazzara (the lead in the 1960s’ TV series Run For Your Life played Jake), Lauren Ambrose (the co-star of HBO’s Six Feet Under played Hennie) and Zoë Wannamaker as Bessie. The current Group Rep version holds its own with that Broadway production. And although this critic and Odets-phile is in no way qualified to speak on behalf of the much-vaunted Group Theatre I tend to think that Clifford, Clurman, Stella and company would find Group Rep’s rendition a worthy successor, as they grope towards the Group’s hallowed heritage.

Awake and Sing! is being presented by the Group Repertory Theatre at the Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood, CA 91601 on Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and on Sunday at 2:00 p.m. through Nov. 3. For more info: (818)763-5990; www.theGrouprep.com.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell

Thursday, 26 September 2013

The new book co-authored by L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell, The Hawaii Movie and Television Book, published by Honolulu's Mutual Publishing, drops Nov. 20.