Shipwreck, whole families crawled
To the tenements, and there
Survived by what morality
Which for the sons
Ends its metaphysic
In small lawns of home.
George Oppen’s poem parallels the conflict in Clifford Odets’ first play, Awake and Sing!, now onstage at the Aurora Theatre, directed by Joy Carlin: the children of immigrants moving out of the settlements and buying into notions of respectability—and their own children bridling at it.
Odets would revisit this theme in some of his later plays and screenplays. One variation that appears here and elsewhere: the self-sacrifice of an immigrant grandparent so a grandchild can escape what the grandparent sees as a corrupt, loveless home.
Awake and Sing! was Odets’ first play. A frustrated actor with the Group Theater, he said whatever dramatic technique there was in the play did not get into it consciously, but through his skin. And the dialogue in particular is surprisingly supple—and not particularly linear. It’s not so easy to predict where a character will go with the train of thought and words another initiated. Speeches—which can have the cloying, if uplifting quality of an anthem—are buffered by quick exchanges and don’t seem overwrought.
Odets also has his own way of offsetting some of the more charged lines, by a third character acting as ironic or sarcastic chorus in the interstices of what’s said, one character to another.
Grandfather Jake—Ray Reinhardt in a wonderful depiction of the old socialist chased to kennel by his own daughter, listening to Caruso on his gramophone rather than the troubled, uncommunicative sounds of the family house—proves to be a Cassandra, and later, ironically, an atheist prophet from Scripture, as he tries to rouse the others to the commitment to life he could not fully give.
Ellen Ratner as Bessie, the domineering mother of the menage, Jake’s daughter, leans hard on the tiller, controlling her grown children’s lives, yet speaks her piece, heavy with resentment when they rebel (“It’s no law we should be stuck together like Siamese Twins”): “Maybe you wanted me to give up 20 years ago; where would you be?” A worshipper of Mammon, but the only one with enough force of will to keep the family from flying apart.
Even her absurd, lapdog husband (Charles Dean, playing hapless Myron with sensitivity and humor) refers to her as sick, half-admonishing the offspring. The little gems of obliviousness he scatters prove less comic relief than a pathetic burlesque of irony, whether eternally quoting Teddy Roosevelt in the days of Franklin (“When you have a problem, sleep on it!”) or reacting to a sharp remark by his daughter: “Our Henny will say anything; she takes after me.”
There’s an asymmetric balance of power—or terror—in the household, involving Morty (Victor Talmadge), Jake’s son, a successful merchant who dismisses his father’s jeremiads; boarder and seemingly cynical veteran Moe Axelrod (Ron Gnapp); and callow son-in-law Sam (Anthony Nemirovsky, who doubles as Schlosser, neighbor and messenger of bad news, as in Greek Tragedy), who’s been dragooned unawares into marrying Hennie (Rebecca White), delivered unto him like tainted chattel.
Hennie and Ralph (Patrick Russell), the third generation, understand each other with almost a sense of complicity. Their grandfather’s blessings stay with them, and they extend them to each other in a resolution that is also something of a reversal, an exchange of the usual end to rebellion in who escapes to a new life, who stays on and endures. There’s hope, through new understanding, that the materialistic curse of the parents and the resentment of the young have both been sloughed off.
Carlin’s solid cast delivers an ensemble show, each coming up with their character’s special moments.
Ron Gnapp, entering while flipping a coin—shades of George Raft—then watching the proceedings with the eagle eye of the outsider, before intervening deftly, yet wholeheartedly taking sides, joins Reinhardt and Dean in providing some of the play’s choicest moments, issuing a racy commentary on many of the others in period slang.
“Awake and sing! ye who dwell in dust.” Grandfather Jake, who maybe just missed wrestling with the angel, invokes jubilation after lamenting, “In my day, the propaganda was for God; today, for success.” But, though unlooked for, a kind of deliverance is waiting. “In this boy’s life, the Red Sea will open again.”