Truly Awake

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

A few years ago Clifford Odets' 1935 play Awake and Sing! was revived on Broadway. It starred Mark Ruffalo, Ben Gazzara, Lauren Ambrose and gained a good deal of critical praise. It was directed by Bartlett Sher, who would go on to helm the first rate South Pacific revival arriving at the Ahmanson next month and then the August Wilson revival, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, which the Obamas attended last year.

In other words, this 2006 Lincoln Center production of Awake & Sing! was a big deal, and so when I was in New York towards the end of the run, I bought a ticket to see it…and proceeded to fall asleep. It wasn't that the production was bad, it was very tasteful and poignant and full of silences meant to show the poetry of the proletariat during the depression. But it just seemed too reverent, too serious and frankly dull. It's embarrassing to admit, but nobody, even a jetlagged nobody, should fall asleep in a production of a play titled Awake & Sing! Right? (Especially since there's an exclamation mark after Sing!)

I mention this because Awake & Sing! is now being revived by the Glendale theater troupe, A Noise Within. And I made a point to see this production to either find out what I missed or to once again catch some zzz's. As luck would have it, I saw this production shortly after taking a flight, so my state was not unlike seeing the Bart Sher version. But, here's the thing: I stayed awake throughout this Awake & Sing!

The reason? Director Andrew J. Traister's staging is simple, but the action is boisterous and lively—which suits this three-act play that all takes place in a Bronx apartment that's bursting at the seams. The Bergers in this production feel like a real family, one that's been living together under one roof for too long. Traister's cast feels like a group of people whose quirks and habits are set in stone.

This is seen especially in the husband and wife, Myron and Bessie Berger, played here by veteran company members Joel Swetow and Deborah Strang. The subtext of Odets' play is that those who live their lives only for money are unable to truly live. This counts for the wealthy Uncle Morty (well played by Alan Blumenfeld) but even more for those who aren't wealthy, like the Bergers. Swetow and Strand play Myron and Bessie Berger as two people completely adrift in the dog-eat-dog world of 1930's New York—but instead of just making them kvetching, Jewish caricatures, they come off as vivid portraits of people who judge themselves by what they don't have, rather than accepting who they are.

Their performances anchor this production, but the other actors compliment them as well. Daniel Reichert plays Moe Axelrod, the cynical bookie with much more sleazy, period panache than Mark Ruffalo managed on Broadway. Likewise, Len Lesser shows more real chutzpah than Ben Gazzara as Jacob, the irascible, left-leaning Grandfather who sees the future in his grandson Ralph.

Ralph is also who the playwright Odets sees as the future. Played with a nice balance of intensity and naïveté by Adam Silver, Ralph is the idealist, the one character who acts on what he wants. He is the character who Jacob tells, using the quote from Isaiah that gives the play its title, "You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!" In this modest local production, Odets' old-fashioned, somewhat dusty play does indeed sing—and even earns the title's exclamation mark. Most of all this is an Awake and Sing! that won't put you to sleep.

Clifford Odets' Awake & Sing! runs through May 23 at A Noise Within.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Banner image: (L-R) Adam Silver, Len Lesser, Deborah Strang, and Joel Swetow in A Noise Within's Awake and Sing! Photos: Craig Schwartz