The Theatreguide.London Review
O'Neill. Miller, Williams - a list of great American playwrights would not have to go very much further before it hit the name of Clifford Odets, and if he is less well-known in Britain, this Almeida revival of his finest play may help to change that.
The poet of the Depression years, it was Odets who made the discovery that almost every later American dramatist would build on - that the purely domestic stories of little people could reflect an entire era and culture.
Odets shows us the Berger family of New York City, just trying to make it through a couple of years of the 1930s. Father Myron is a nonentity who lives in the simpler time of his youth and dreams of winning contests, grandfather Jake is an old-line Socialist who never read the books he preaches out of.
Adult children Ralph and Hennie dream of romance and adventure, and mother Bessie holds the family together, even at the price of becoming the villain in everyone's eyes.
In short, they're all doing what their culture has taught them to do, and it's not working. Writing in 1935, Odets raises the possibility that the American Dream has died, and the only hope is to wake up and search for something new.
At the end of the play one member of the family is dedicated to social action and another runs off to hedonistic escape - and the play makes no moral judgement between them, since they are both at least breaking with the past.
I hope I haven't made that sound too preachy or Good For You, because Awake And Sing is a rich, warm, frequently funny and as frequently moving intimate drama. Other writers might use stick figures to voice their political views, but Odets makes his characters come fully alive so their very personal stories dramatise his points for him.
And while I have some minor cavils with Michael Attenborough's direction and some of the playing, this production captures all the play's reality, warmth and humour.
How would I have done it differently? I think Attenborough gives the play too soft and autumnal a tone, as if it had already given up on its own hopes for the future. I'd like more passion in some of the scenes, more of an edge to this family's irritation with each other (Wouldn't a New York Jewish family shout a little more?). I'd like more sense of the price Bessie has paid to be strong, more desperation in boarder Moe's love for Hennie.
But, as I said, these are the druthers of a frustrated director, and the way Attenborough has done it works beautifully. Stockard Channing's Bessie, Ben Turner's Ralph and Nigel Lindsay's Moe stand out in a uniformly strong cast.
A final note: Almeida regulars might be reminded of last season's Big White Fog, the 1938 play by Theodore Ward, which covered much of the same ground with an African-American family. There can be no question that Ward was inspired by Odets, and if you responded to that play, you will very much like this one.
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Review - Awake and Sing - Almeida 2007