- The Washington Times - Friday, January 27, 2006

Theater critic John Lahr recently mentioned in the New Yorker magazine that the centennial of playwright Clifford Odets’ birth was nearing and it would be a fine time for fresh looks at some of his works. Be careful what you wish for, Mr. Lahr. If the overly earnest, plodding production of “Awake and Sing!” at Arena is any indication, it is going to be a tough slog.

If anyone can punch up an American classic, it is Zelda Fichandler, founding artistic director at Arena Stage, who has returned to the District to direct “Awake and Sing!” With an eye for actors as acute as ever, she has assembled a superior cast headed by Robert Prosky as the waning patriarch of a first-generation Jewish-American family living in the Bronx in 1935.

Mr. Prosky effortlessly dominates the stage, even when standing stock-still in the corner listening to an old opera record. His reactions are canny without hogging the spotlight, his sense of timing is seasoned and watchful. Although not the main character, Mr. Prosky’s Jacob is the moral heart of the piece, and his absence is keenly felt late in the second act.

With “Awake and Sing!” Mr. Odets did not merely want to present a hard-boiled picture of an American family struggling to survive in close quarters during the Great Depression. The play is also an urgent call to socialism, a cry for people to stop worshipping the almighty dollar and to find collective meaning in something other than capitalism.

Mr. Odets’ message that capitalism is dead and that we must look to Russia and other “progressive” countries for inspiration must have wowed ‘em in the 1930s. Nearly 80 years later, the device, which lends a rather quaint Bolshevik air to the play, results in a lot of windy, stagy speechifying by characters who are little more than mouthpieces for the playwright.

Take away the left-wing proselytizing, and what’s left is a drearily commonplace ethnic family drama. The cramped apartment is presided over by Bessie Berger (an enervating Jana Robbins), a woman who uses a clean house and a full table as a means of control.

Even in the pantheon of nagging Jewish mothers, Bessie stands out — her agitated concern for her family and death grip on everyone’s every move borders on the psychotic. Endlessly worried about money and social appearances, Bessie is a proud woman for whom “home” is a wretched fortress that nonetheless must be protected at all costs.

Naturally, she is married to a nebbish, Myron (Steve Routman, who provides the evening’s scant notes of sweetness and humor), who is as philosophical and tranquil as she is rigid. Bessie also hounds her two children, Ralph (Adam Green), a dreams-filled boy who — gasp — is in love with a shiksa, and Hennie (Miriam Silverman), an indulged princess trapped in a loveless marriage to an immigrant schlemiel (Richard J. Canzano) as a result of finding herself in the family way after a fling with a passing businessman.

The unhappy clan is rounded out by Moe Axelrod (Adam Dannheisser, in a performance blazing with flair and pent-up frustration), a boarder with the jaunty, wisecracking brio of a born gambler, and Uncle Morty (Brian Reddy), a smug family success story.

The characters may be predictable, but Mr. Odets’ dialogue jumps and jives like big-band music — the staccato, gangsterish slang is a delight to the ear and gives you insight into just where David Mamet got his rat-a-tat-tat rhythms.

Although the play emphasizes the various miseries and kvetches of the Bergers, it harbors a dogged hope that young people hold the promise of a brighter tomorrow. Stop the presses.

It is telling that the audience responded most emotionally to the neglected family dog, Tootsie, who makes a cameo appearance in the second act. Tootsie’s fate after being taken to the roof by Mr. Prosky’s character for an evening constitutional was the topic of much conjecture by members of the audience. This could be a sign that this production of “Awake and Sing!” is not a call to arms, but an uninvolving look at human misery.

**

WHAT: “Awake and Sing!” by Clifford Odets

WHERE: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through March 5.

TICKETS: $41 to $60

PHONE: 202/488-3300

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