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Theatre in Review: Awake and Sing! (NAATCO/The Public Theater)

Teresa Avia Lim, Sanjit De Silva. Photo: Peter Kim.

It's time once again for a visit with the Berger family, the embattled Bronx clan caught in the stark, soul-killing vise of the Great Depression; this particular get-together is a little bit different, however, as the family of first- and second-generation Jews envisioned by Clifford Odets is performed by the members of NAATCO, whose mission is to showcase Asian-American actors in classic plays. What may seem at first like a kind of social experiment quickly becomes an all-around gripping evening in the theatre, thanks to a company thoroughly adept at handling the author's distinctive dialogue. Nobody wrote like Odets; his lines are full of bitter wisecracks and brutally exposed heartbreak, set to the tempo of the city's subways, the rat-a-tat sounds of skyscraper construction sites, and restless jazz band rhythms. A shy young thing is described as "the kind no one sees undressed until the undertaker works on her." On the topic of opera: "Who the hell wants to hear a wop air his tonsils all day long?" And how's this for romance: "Don't run away....I ain't got hydrophobia."

"Restless" is a good word for the Bergers, each of whom, with one exception, reaches with both hands for the American Dream, only to find nothing but handfuls of air. A respectable middle-class clan, most with jobs in the garment trade, they've seen the underpinnings of their once-secure world collapse along with the stock market. Salaries are getting cut back, services in their apartment building are failing, and each day reveals another set of furniture sitting on the street. In this tense, uncertain atmosphere, several generations must stick together, pooling their meager wages and putting their dreams on hold against the hope of better days. It's a brutal situation, especially for siblings Ralph and Hennie, living under the rule of their cold-eyed, domineering mother, Bessie, who relies on every penny they bring in. (It's interesting how often in Awake and Sing! a person's worth is evaluated based on the salary he earns.) Day by day, Ralph and Hennie are seeing their hopes -- for romance, a career, a family life -- slip away, until a series of explosive events shakes up the Bergers' existence for good.

Stephen Brown-Fried's production, which places the audience on two sides of Anshuman Bhatia's set, focuses on the tensions unleashed when too many abrasive personalities occupy too little space. There are a couple of moments where the pace could be tightened a bit, and one or two supporting performances could be made a tad sharper. But overall, Brown-Fried and his company probe deeply into the web of dependence and frustration that holds the Bergers together, and there are many moments that are as wounding as those found in other, starrier revivals.

Mia Katigbak, NAATCO's artistic director, is a formidable Bessie, who binds her loved ones to her with a series of tartly dismissive remarks, her innate ruthlessness never far from the surface. Watch her closely as she studies Hennie with a coolly appraising air, realizing with a shock that her daughter isn't the innocent she thought; with icy resolve, she heads into battle mode, laying out a plan to get her engaged to a cast-off suitor within a week. Later, Bessie turns on her elderly father, smashing his beloved collection of opera records to bits, then staggers to the dinner table with a haunted look in her eye, as if even she can't believe her own cruelty. She also reveals a streak of vulnerability when poignantly having daydreams of Ralph coming home in a chauffeur-driven limousine. And, when death comes calling, she stands hunched over the phone, unable to dial -- for the moment, at least, a broken woman.

Jon Norman Schneider's Ralph is caught in a feedback loop of recriminations and nervous energy, signaled by his restless right leg whenever he is seated. He captures Ralph's barely stifled rage at a lifetime of being denied the things he wants, but he's also good at expressing the thrill of his first love ("She's like...French words!") as well as his panic when Bessie moves to squelch it. Teresa Avia Lim is a marvelously sullen Hennie, especially after she is married off to Sam, the poor, plodding immigrant she can barely tolerate (David Shih). Hennie has an electric rapport with Moe, the sneering ex-bootlegger with one leg who becomes the Bergers' star boarder. As played by Sanjit De Silva, in the production's most sensational performance, he is as slick as a jar of Brylcreem and possessed of a scalding cyncism, especially when trying to get Hennie's attention with wickedly provocative remarks. ("Here's a dame strangled her hubby with wire. Claimed she didn't like him. Why don't you brain Sam with an axe some night?") When Moe, in desperation, pleads with Hennie to abandon Sam and their child, the chemistry between them explodes in an encounter that is equal parts seduction and pitched battle.

Aside from Katigbak's Bessie, however, the older generation isn't as strong as it might be. As Jacob, Bessie's father, who exists on the family's margins, Alok Tewari is at his best offering raging denunciations of the capitalist system, but he lacks a certain moral authority otherwise. Henry Yuk captures the absentmindedness of Myron, Bessie's husband, but not his fundamental sadness. James Saito looks right as Morty, Bessie's well-off brother, but an element of cynical self-satisfaction is missing.

Still, this production captures the almost unbearable tension of a household where everyone must sacrifice without getting any satisfaction. Adding to the atmosphere is Bhatia's set, depicting the kitchen and living room, and Gina Scherr's lighting, which shifts between bright, lamplit looks and chilly moonlight flooding in through the leaded windows. Alexae Visel's costumes have a solid period feel, especially Bessie's matronly outfits and Moe's fashionably tailored suits. The sound design, by Toby Algya, makes good use of a tunestack of '30s dance band arrangements and Enrico Caruso singing arias from Meyerbeer's L'Africaine, Jacob's favorite opera, plus the sound of the Boston airmail plane flying over the apartment, inflaming Ralph with dreams of escape.

A couple of characters escape at the end of Awake and Sing! but it's anyone guess if they're headed for happiness or not. Anyway, life in the Berger household will never be the same. Eighty years on, a play that was hailed as a pioneering study of a certain ethnic group is now seen as a drama of the love/hate grip in which so many families exist. That it can be so fluently performed by actors of another ethnicity only confirms its universality. Awake and Sing! is an American classic, and this most American of theatre companies does it proud. -- David Barbour

(15 July 2015)

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