By Donna Herman
On paper it seems like a good idea at the right time. A revival of Clifford Odets’ 1935 classic Awake and Sing! about a struggling immigrant family in The Bronx, done in Yiddish, the language they would probably have spoken had they existed in real life. A no-brainer for the New Yiddish Rep since Awake and Sing! was the first Broadway play to focus entirely on a Jewish family. And Clifford Odets was one of the first American playwrights to use, and become recognizable for ethnic language and street talk in his work. The current production at the 14th St. Y through December 24th, has a Yiddish translation by Chaver Paver, but there are supertitles in English over the set that are easy to read.
The story is a familiar one in this day and age – an extended immigrant family living in one small apartment, trying to make ends meet in the years after an economic downturn that has turned their dreams of advancement to dust. The older members of the family are frightened by what they happening around them, the furniture of their neighbors on the street. The younger members frustrated and angry at the things they see other people have that they can’t attain. It’s chilling to think that nothing has changed in 80 years.
Unfortunately, what seems like a good idea on paper sometimes doesn’t pan out when you put it on it’s feet. Odets’ style was a little pedantic. There was a lot of idealistic talk – which was novel for the time – and not a lot of dramatic action. In 1935, it may have kept the audience rapt because it was shocking to hear. But in 2017, when a young man says he wants something more out of life than what’s printed on dollar bills, my reaction is, “yeah, so what are you going to do about it?” In Awake and Sing! he’s going to whine and pout about it endlessly. He never does anything.
In addition to the endless chatter about what they’re going to do, instead of actually doing anything, the fact that you have to read the supertitles instead of watch the actors, makes the production feel drawn out and sluggish. There are a couple of bright exceptions. Ronit Asheri as Bessie Berger, the matriarch of the family, is a veritable tornado, mowing down everything in her path. You should excuse the expression. Do not get in her way, do not cross her. You have no choice but to go with her flow. Whatever Bessie wants, Bessie gets. And Gera Sandler as Moe Axelrod, the brash ex-soldier who lost a leg in the war, the street-savvy, neighborhood fixer-type, who has a smile for everyone but plays his cards close to his chest, crackles with energy and lights up the stage whenever he’s on it. Oddly enough, Luzer Twersky, who plays mild-mannered Sam Feinschreiber, haplessly ensnared into marrying Hennie (Mira Kessler), the daughter of the family, gives us one of the funniest and lightest scenes in the play, when he cries on Bessie’s shoulder about Hennie’s treatment of him.
Awake and Sing! By Clifford Odets, Yiddish Translation by Chaver Paver, Adapted and Directed by David Mandelbaum
WITH: Moshe Lobel (Ralph Berger); Eli Rosen (Myron Berger); Mira Kessler (Hennie Berger); David Mandelbaum (Jacob); Ronit Asheri (Bessie Berger); Gera Sandler (Moe Axelrod); Amy Coleman (Aunt Mimi); Luzer Twersky (Sam Feinschreiber).
Sets & Lights By Nathan Rhoden; Costume Design By Gail Cooper-Hecht; Sound Design By Jesse Freedman; Stage Manager, Mimi Barcomi; Assistant Stage Manager, Seth Majnoon. Performances through December 24th at The 14th Street Y, 344 East 14th Street. Tickets: www.newyiddishrep.org