Written at the beginning of the Depression, Clifford Odets's Awake and Sing! sounds from its title like a paean to American exuberance and chest-thumping optimism. However, in its time the play was an angry excoriation of capitalism. Today, in its Gamm reincarnation directed by Trinity Rep actor Fred Sullivan Jr. (through February 15), its noble intentions come across as strident and somewhat dated, with no fresh news from the battlefield, from family skirmishes still spilling blood over the generations.
FAMILY AS WHIRLPOOL: Buirski, Overly, and Babbitt.
There are satisfactions in this production, mainly from watching the beautifully-cast Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre actors create their characters, who are individually absorbing. But collectively, the Bergers of the Bronx and those drawn to them are a different matter. This isn't a family, it's a whirlpool, and it's hard to see how most of them keep from being sucked into the maelstrom.
Everyone and everything swirls around Bessie Berger (Wendy Overly), which is fine with her. As presented here, she is the Mother from Hell, keeping the rest of the family in interminable Purgatory. She is a matriarch with a mission, which is mainly to control the lives of everyone around her. Husband Myron (Chuck Reifler) is a good-natured, ineffectual sap. Early on, he lost any say in the family after he made nothing of two years in law school while she worked for a pittance. Daughter Hennie (Diana Buirski) is high-spirited and ambitious about her prospects, a trait that her mother keeps putting down. Son Ralphie (Marc Dante Mancini) is the Odets stand-in in this, the first play he wrote. He is an underpaid warehouse clerk who hopes to marry Blanche, the unseen girlfriend he dotes on ("She is like French words"), but he can't since he is poor.
Bessie's Russian immigrant father, Jacob (Sam Babbitt), is full of Jewish and anarchist contentiousness, if not wisdom. Furious at his daughter insisting that Hennie marry someone she doesn't love, he says he'd rather die than see that. Jacob quotes Marx to his daughter, saying, "Where there is so much hate, abolish such families."
Uncle Morty (Tom Gleadow) is the only one who gets any respect from Bessie, his money-worshiping sister, because he's a successful businessman. He settles for duck for Sunday dinner there, saying he'd prefer goose, even though they probably can't afford chicken. Occasionally troubled by labor complaints, he doesn't appreciate his father saving newspaper clippings about striking sweatshop workers being shot down by police.
Morty takes pride in making his fortune honestly, a route sneered at by Moe Axelrod (Tony Estrella), a boarder in the household. An embittered war veteran who lost a leg in France, he suggests that Ralphie get himself a racket, although we don't know what particular criminality he's settled on himself. He has his lecherous eyes on Hennie, making crude passes and being too "freewheeling with his hands," in her words, for her to date him again. Moe is astoundingly misogynistic. He teases about chopping up women like herring and speaks admiringly of a Frenchman he read about whose wife problem was solved in a bathtub of acid. That sounds like exaggerated dark humor, but Estrella gives the guy an edge of cruelty that says potential psychopath more than clumsy joker. Without our earlier glimpsing a human being under his tough-guy persona, it's hard to swallow his last-scene softening and opening up to Hennie.