Past Is Murky Prologue in Excellent ‘Awake And Sing!’

Wednesday, March 8 marked the third time in six weeks that University City’s Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center was targeted with a bomb threat. No evacuations were ordered that day, but the development is among 150 similar events occurring over 37 states, two Canadian provinces and pockets of Australia and New Zealand since Jan. 9.

While such abominations have been going on forever and will persist long after that, the origins of their modern installments are often lost in scores of permutations. We’ve come eons since 1935, the publication year of playwright Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing!, a very good cautionary tale on appearance’s sake and the value of money as a social tool — the very items that may fuel the climate for such ugliness — and still, the lesson eludes us.

The play’s principals happen to be Depression-era Jews, but their problems apply in spades in virtually every corner of world society. If you see this New Village Arts entry, you’ll find an abundance of parallels from the relatively distant past. You also get to see an excellent production to boot.

Jacob Berger, his daughter Bessie, her husband Myron, boarder Moe and nebbish Sam (from left, Eric Poppick, Sandy Campbell, Joe Paulson, Max Macke and Tom Steward) seek a few answers to a host of hard philosophical questions. Photo by Daren Scott.

The Berger family comprises three generations of lower-middle-class Jews living in a cracker-barrel Bronx apartment and an atmosphere peppered with controversy and complaint. Family matriarch Bessie is a control freak who invests everything in her children’s dicey love lives while her befuddled husband Myron only stands and waits. Her father Jacob is a diehard Marxist in the worker’s eternal battle with the Man; Morty, her brother, is the swaggering antithesis amid his success in the garment trade.

Family boarder Moe Axelrod, who lost a leg in World War I, confesses his heart for Bessie’s daughter Hennie amid her loveless arranged marriage to nebbish Sam Feinschriber. Bessie’s son Ralph is fighting a losing battle in his own love life, thus fueling his innate excitability. Finally, Schlosser, the janitor in the Bergers’ building, would probably walk away with a million bucks if he had a nickel for every family drama.

Jacob is the sleeper character here — amid a tragic ploy to eke out insurance money for Ralph, he declares the play’s essential truth. Courage of conviction, he says, is essential (even easy) as life comes and goes under God’s unrelenting eye.

The Bergers… evince honor and self-reliance when push comes to shove.

“Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust,” he quotes the Bible’s Book of Isaiah; “for thy dew is as the dew of herbs, and the Earth shall cast out the dead.”

The play’s core success is that it involves such basically good people. For all their bickering and preoccupation with their lot in life, the Bergers (with one glaring exception) evince honor and self-reliance when push comes to shove. And for all his verbosity, Odets displays exquisite timing to that end. Listen to the double meaning behind Bessie’s “Go fight City Hall!”; watch Moe languish in his ardent wish to come back as a dog and sit on a fat lady’s lap. The anecdotes are splendid, flanking the action the way stately old bookends bound a newly minted set of classics.

The lesson isn’t lost on director Kristianne Kurner, who clearly distinguishes the meat-and-potatoes dialogue from the loftier passages on societal respectability. She’s coached her people very, very well as their speeches convey action, then philosophy, exactly as appropriate. Thanks to her, the intervals that govern each tack are perfectly clear and concise even as the play is awash in its speechifying.

If you break stuff down per character, Sandy Campbell’s Bessie likely has the preponderance of dialogue, at least in act one. Campbell is poised and lucid amid the swirl of ideas around Bessie, whose youthful spirit betrays a highly elastic mind. Jacob’s hangdog countenance is the product of decades of worker idealism, and Eric Poppick judiciously uses this as a tool to fuel Jacob’s histrionics.

In his own way, Clifford Odets may have forecast much of the modern societal upset. Public domain photo.

Anna Rebek’s Hennie and J. Tyler Jones’ Frank (who has the show’s final say) face their romantic challenges with a surfeit of introspection — each actor is highly resolute in the outcome even as one character takes the easy way out. Everybody else is fine in their physicalities and comprehension, although Tom Steward’s Feinschriber and Alex Guzman’s Schlosser are decidedly underwritten roles. (Corollary: It’s fitting that Guzman should set the action to music as a lone guitarist. His Schlosser, after all, knows the family better than the family knows itself.)

The kaleidoscopic ideas and dialogue reflect what should be a nest-like, almost tawdry set, but Kurner’s design is a little too compartmentalized by comparison. Eliza Benzoni’s costumes, Melanie Chen’s sound, Chris Renda’s lights and Jo Anne Glover’s dialectics are craftworthy and collaborative.

The irony in the Jewish center threats case is that a suspect, arrested March 24, is Jewish. His motives have reportedly shocked and dismayed the Jewish community and will fully unfold in time, but for now, his alleged ploy might serve as a microcosm of Berger infighting and Jewish solidarity. The last 82 years of national evolution have dizzied the public mind into any number of errant conclusions on ethnicity and the free market — with this Awake and Sing!, it’s clear that their roily histories, and their invaluable successes, are only a thought away.

Martin Jones Westlin’s e-mail address is [email protected].

This review is based on the matinee performance of March 26. Awake and Sing! runs through April 16 at New Village Arts, 2787 State St. in Carlsbad. $20-$36. 760-433-3245,

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