“Beware of poetry,” said the Belgian playwright Ghelderode, “that announces itself with placards.” And I wish Lincoln Center Theater had heeded his words while reviving Clifford Odets’s 1934 classic, Awake and Sing. Don’t get me wrong—Awake and Sing is nothing to beware of: It’s still emphatically alive 72 years later, as astonishing for its thick-packed dramatic riches as for its verbal music. But every so often, Bartlett Sher’s production gets a little self-conscious about the play’s historic stature and a tiny invisible placard seems to go up onstage, announcing, “This Is Poetry, and you suckers had better show some reverence.” I say, skip the reverence. Odets’s poetry can hold its own without annunciations. If Sher had told his cast to play the piece like eight cab drivers arguing in a Times Square traffic jam, he’d have gotten a stronger purchase on the play’s core. Lustrous as Awake and Sing‘s language often is, it ain’t dainty: It comes from the mouths of half-assimilated immigrants and children of immigrants, jostling each other in a crowded flat with no privacy. It’s the poetry of people who, with every move they make, are stepping on somebody else’s dream.
Sher’s main annunciative device, carried out by Michael Yeargan’s set, is the opposite of this jostling, frayed-nerve atmosphere: As the play’s Berger family claws its increasingly bitter way toward the events that will splinter it forever, the walls of their apartment slide away one by one, revealing the hall staircase outside, the building’s brick wall, and finally a blue void, from which the younger generation, daughter Hennie and son Ralph, will run off to start a new way of life. Their hopes are fatally tainted, as Odets has already shown us, by the pain they’ve absorbed while cooped up so long with parents and grandfather in what amounts to a pressure cooker of past hopes unfulfilled: Hennie will leave her unwanted husband and baby for an unreliable, partially disabled, petty racketeer, whose only virtue is his love for her; Ralph will let his parents’ domestic needs gobble up the money his grandfather meant to finance his escape from the familial treadmill, instead putting his faith in books and a revolution that, even in 1934, Odets probably knew would never come. Hennie’s self-sacrifice, notice, recapitulates what her mother has gone through with Myron’s failed attempt at law school; Ralph’s dreams, like his books, are his grandpa Jacob’s leftovers.
On the matter of revolution, Odets himself was less intransigent than Ralphie: Initially blacklisted in the anti-Communist witch hunts of the late ’40s, he vacillated before finally naming names in 1953. His 1930s shuttlings between Hollywood glamor and the Group Theatre, which had become famous simultaneously with him through Waiting for Lefty and then certified their joint fame by premiering Awake and Sing, reveal a similar ambiguity. (In 1940, when the Group’s spectacular flop with his play Night Music was followed by his headline-grabbing divorce from movie star Luise Rainer, Cole Porter gibed in song, “When Cliff Odets found a new tomayter/He plowed under the Group The-ay-ter.”)
Underneath Odets’s Jewish-inflected mix of family conflicts, Depression economics, generational clashes, and urban slang (“Like Boob McNutt you know! Don’t go in the park, Pop—they’ll feed you to to the squirrels.”) lies a plainly visible structural model: the writer most worshipped by theater artists of Odets’s generation, Chekhov. It’s easy to see the miseries of Masha and Vershinin behind the torments of Hennie and Moe, while Hennie’s hapless spouse, Sam Feinschreiber, is a clear blend of Medvedenko and Kulygin. Never literal duplications, Odets’s updated variations on his master always contain new material, newly observed and shaped. Their freshly heard language might be thought of as Chekhov in jazz, a parallel to the “ragging” or “jazzing” of classical melodies by composers like Irving Berlin and Eubie Blake. That the underlying tunes are deeply melancholy doesn’t lessen the excitement of the text’s driving rhythms and dissonant, bluesy chords. (Odets thought of his plays as songs; his original title for Awake and Sing was I Got the Blues.)
Sher’s production, wearing its poetic self-consciousness on its sleeve, sometimes supplies an awkward, slightly halting rhythm, particularly in the opening dinner scene. Big moments are sometimes oddly downplayed, or overplayed, in ways that suggest too much thought about the theatricality of a scene and not enough about its substance. Striving for proper Noo Yawk accents, the cast approaches some of the slangier moments gingerly, on verbal tiptoe. Fortunately, the spell of Odets is hard to fight off: The characters’ rooted reality and their magical language gradually take hold, so that large sections of the performance flow, freely and sumptuously. There are four great portraits: Mark Ruffalo as Moe the star boarder, chin cocked and prosthetic leg stomping; Richard Topol as the hapless Feinschreiber (the only Feinschreiber I’ve ever seen who didn’t strain for laughs); Jonathan Hadary’s Myron, his eyes glazed with expectations of defeat; and Ned Eisenberg, as rich uncle Morty, who manages to sound wealthier than his kin even while kvetching about bad business conditions. But Lauren Ambrose’s Hennie, emotionally and visually, seems planets away from this volatile crowd; Zoe Wanamaker, as the matriarch Bessie, and Ben Gazzara, as her unreconciled father, seem to be trying simultaneously to display and disavow their family connections. (Bessie’s big explosion becomes one of those downplayed moments.) And son Ralph’s struggle to find himself is matched, excitingly but not always successfully, by Pablo Schreiber’s struggle to “find” Ralph as a character. This includes a wildly upbeat rendering of the final speech, played in that starry blue void, with snow lightly falling in what was a cluttered apartment minutes before. It’s right in tone for 1934 but not for us: If there’s a real problem with Awake and Sing, it’s that we have failed Odets rather than vice versa. Life today is irrevocably printed on dollar bills, now covered with an oil slick. The play’s hopes are dead; only its reality still burgeons, vivid and fresh.