The Circle in the Square does honor to Clifford Odets with the thoughtful production of "Awake and Sing!" that opened there last night. Almost 50 years have passed since the Group Theater found its true voice with its galvanizing production of this first creation by the company's young actor-playwright. That blaze cannot possibly be rekindled, but the crackling energy of the play can still be felt.
The Berger family, barely scraping by in its tidy but worn Bronx apartment, is mired in the Great Depression in the summer of 1933 (though not produced until 1935, "Awake and Sing!" was written in 1932 under the title "I Got the Blues"). Myron, the nominal head of the household, is employed only three days of the week. Ralph, the grown son, can hardly endure his job as a shipping clerk bringing in $16 a week, most of which he contributes to the family. His young and unmarried sister Hennie is pregnant. Bessie, the firmly pragmatic mother, rules the roost.
But it is the bond between Jacob, the grandfather who treasures his Caruso records and spouts Marxist doctrine though he's never cracked one of the books in his possession that forms the basis of his faith, and Ralph that is the play's core and provides it with its climax. The others - they include Moe Axelrod, the sharpie who first seduced Hennie, Uncle Morty, Bessie's brother who has made it big in the garment center, and Sam Feinschreiber, the unsuspecting young immigrant who is married off to Hennie - give the work its density and the Chekhovian quality that was discerned in it by some (though roundly denied by others) from the start.
It has always been easy to criticize Odets - mistakenly, as far as I'm concerned - for his speech idiom, a jazzy slang made up of snappy cliches, flip topical references, Yiddish expressions and odd bits of poetry that highlight the speech of a middle-class New York Jewish household of the time. And it would be particularly easy today - again mistakenly - to compare the boiling family life, with its melodramatic twists and turns, to soap opera. But there is a fervor, a vitality, about "Awake and Sing!" that summons such criticism and lends the piece a timeless quality. And it must be remembered that this was a period chock full of trashy proletarian literature and a period in which O'Neill, who had unburdened himself of his monumental "Mourning Becomes Electra" years before, could only produce the sentimental, though enjoyable, comedy "Ah, Wilderness!" and "Days Without End," by common consent his worst play. So Odets stood alone as the voice of his time with this play and - you can see it growing out of the first - that same year's "Paradise Lost."
The production is far from perfect. Theodore Mann's direction could be much tighter (I wish Elia Kazan could have been persuaded to return to the theater to stage this one), and it is not an ideal ensemble. But it comes close. Nancy Marchand is expectedly commanding as Bessie, but unexpectedly convincing as a Jewish mama. The standouts, though, are Thomas G. Waites, as the restless youth Ralph, who lashes out at the materialistic society he feels trapped in, and Paul Sparer as the radical-minded grandfather, Jacob, former barber whose dearest wish, beyond his Marxist trumpeting, is to see his grandson "awake and sing," and who makes a final gesture to implement this. These are first-rate performances of characters who expressed the author's own idealism.
Dick Latessa is quite good as the ineffectual father Myron, given to mouthing bromides. There is a particularly keen and amusing performance by Benjamin Hendrickson as Hennie's doleful immigrant husband. Hennie is appealingly set forth by Frances McDormand in her Broadway debut. There is also a forceful, yet sensitive, performance by Harry Hamlin as Axelrod, the slick opportunist who lost a leg in World War I and whose cynical outlook on society has taken the form of racketeering. Michael Lombard's Uncle Morty is a portly and boastful portrait of an achiever in the garment jungle.
John Conklin has designed a strongly evocative setting topped by a silhouette of the Bronx skyline. Jennifer von Mayrhauser's costumes are also admirably evocative of the period. Richard Nelson's lighting is mostly in keeping with the changing scenes.
Above all, this is the first substantial mounting of this landmark work since the Group's own 1939 revival.
Time does not often deal kindly with reputations - particularly those of a theatrical kind. Twentieth-century American drama is full of lost play and forgotten playwrights - Edna Ferber, Maxwell Anderson, Robert E. Sherwood, the list is formidable if weak.
Apart from Eugene O'Neill and, presumably, if unexpectedly, Philip Barry, who is likely to survive from the years between the World Wars? Thornton Wilder? William Saroyan? George Kaufman? Moss Hart? or - and here is a serious contender, now being widely re-evaluated - Clifford Odets?
The trouble with the re-evaluation of Odets is that the more he is revalued the less value he seems to have. Awake and Sing!, probably his most famous play, was staged at Broadway's Circle in the Square last night, and its negligible sloganeering seemed more negligible than usual.
Awake and Sing! is about the Depression and this production is authentically depressing. It concerns an American-Jewish family surviving in The Bronx in 1933.
Odets has a touch with language, which indeed can sometimes be magical, and he has an eye for detail. The right names are dropped, bargain gift-boxes of candy are proffered, tea is served in glasses, and seltzer in returnable siphons.
And the language has a strange Hollywood-style veracity to it. When a distraught, brow-beaten little husband asks an explanation for her conduct from his disconnected little wife, she simply replies: "There's no bones in ice-cream."
There aren't many bones in Odets' play, which is a sentimental tract against materialism, a plea, in the words of the play's emblematic slogan, that "life shouldn't be printed on dollar bills."
No one seems to have recognized that in Awake and Sing! Odets has produced some of the most grotesquely anti-Semitic stereotypes of world theater.
The chief character, the matriarchal Bessie Berger, has a survival instinct that would do credit to a cockroach, but she is a liar, a cheat, a snob, a bigot and a bully. Not a nice woman.
Her tinsel-dreaming daughter is little better, her husband is a balding wimp, her son full of unfocused rage, her brother a plump-cat capitalist, her son-in-law a comic dupe, her lodger a malcontented, one-legged war veteran, and her father, the play's one sympathetic character apart from the dog, an old, toothless Marxist barber who spouts half-formed ideas and longs for paradise.
This untidy yet obvious play - it is as though O'Casey had frustratingly tried to write Chekhov with an American accent - has two incidents and one theme. And three acts - here at the Circle-in-the-Square wrapped up into two.
The first incident is the daughter's pregnancy by party unseen, and the scheme to marry her off to a duped innocent of an immigrant. The second incident is Grandpa Jake's suicide from the roof while walking the dog - we never learn what happened to the dog - and the family squabble over the insurance money that has been left entirely to the son.
The theme is one of freedom from slavery. At the end the one-legged, war veteran, the flightly bride and the angry young man (carrying Grandpop's as yet unread revolutionary literature) rush out into the wings to make a new life for themselves.
At one point - the pregnancy has just been announced - the distraught and henpecked father of the family observes: "It's like a play on the stage." How right he is...it is not merely like a play on the stage, to be more specific it is like a bad play on the stage.
Now I do not deny that in the days of the Group Theater, Awake and Sing! with its corny, stylized realism, its movie influences and its novel choice of blue-collar New York characters, must have seemed like a fresh breeze. But the breeze has now grown fetid with pollution.
Theodore Mann's staging is slow, almost measured. It is however uncommonly unsentimental about the play's sentimentality. Nancy Marchand's Bessie is played as a simple bitch with no redeeming features; even her famous exculpatory speech about her personal sacrifices is made into a self-pitying whine. A good tough performance that inadvertently sabotages Odets.
I remember the celebrated Morris Carnovsky as Grandfather Jake, in a revival of the role he created. Paul Sparer, the present Jake, is indeed Sparer, but Carnovsky gave the impression of having lived the play.
Dick Latessa is amiably flustered as the husband, Michael Lombard amiably miscast as the rich brother, and the young people Frances McDormand, Harry Hamlin, Thomas G. Waites and Benjamin Hendrickson all offer decent impersonations of character actors in a Warner Bros. B features.
Awake and Sing! this time round does not sing and scarcely stays awake.
In its new and generally inadequate revival at the Circle in the Square, Clifford Odets's ''Awake and Sing!'' is not the rousing experience it was for Group Theater audiences of almost 50 years ago. Yet the play's failings are not necessarily the ones you'd expect. Whatever else is wrong with ''Awake and Sing!'' its theme remains contemporary. Odets was out to excoriate the pagan gods of materialism and success in American life. When his play's principal proselytizer for those empty values, Bessie Berger, champions the golden rule that ''money talks,'' we could also be hearing Willy Loman or even the daydreaming hustlers of ''American Buffalo.''
Nor do the present-day implications of ''Awake and Sing!'' end there. Bessie (Nancy Marchand) is the matriarch of a lower-middle-class Jewish family of the Depression-era Bronx. Odets's story is about how her 22-year-old son, Ralph (Thomas G. Waites), finally escapes her grasp to fight for a new and better world where life is not ''printed on dollar bills.'' But for all the dialogue's references to Marx and revolution, Ralph is no revolutionary and has no ideological program. His plan to ''change the world'' is toothless, youthful optimism - his song of rebellion might well be ''Let the Sunshine In.''
Watching the play now, we can see how the naive Ralph - like Odets himself and some starry-eyed idealists of generations to come - was eventually doomed to capitulate to the status quo. Indeed, given the playwright's subsequent history, it's especially poignant to hear his hero fantasize just as rhapsodically about ''flying to Hollywood'' as he does about political change.
But if ''Awake and Sing!'' endures as a social document, its status as a stageworthy play has declined. Certainly one can imagine how exciting the work was for Depression audiences. Odets portrayed the ongoing collapse of the immigrant's American dream in the actual setting where that collapse was taking place; second-generation Americans saw their daily lives, shattered fortunes and conflicted values drawn realistically on stage as never before. Now that novelty is gone. The Bergers are familiar archetypes and must stand on their own. They can only move us to the extent that the author gave them the psychological depth that's essential to keep any fictional characters alive.
The Bergers don't have that depth. It's the weakness of Odets's writing, not his play's subject or period, that makes ''Awake and Sing!'' so dated in contrast to related works of its time (from ''Call It Sleep'' to ''What Makes Sammy Run?''). Each family member has at most two or three traits that are attached like name cards. Neither the individual characters nor their relationships are rooted deeply beneath the play's surface; we don't even believe fully in Bessie's underlying affection for the children who refuse to accept her upwardly mobile ambitions.
To make matters worse, the theatrical machinery - the plot devices involving pregnancy and insurance payments - now seems artificial and obvious. So does Odets's dramatization of his themes. It's typical of the writing's heavy-handedness that the ''dollar bills'' line is repeated over and over, as are some symbolic motifs involving fruit and a Caruso recording of ''O Paradiso.''
What does remain fresh, aside from the play's message, is the teeming atmosphere and pungent, Yiddish-flavored dialogue. It's difficult to judge from the current staging whether these strengths can still sustain ''Awake and Sing!'' - for the production only capitalizes on Odets's keenly observed milieu in brief, scattered stretches.
Too often the cast affects accents that are more appropriate to Little Italy or, in one case, Scandinavia than the Bronx. The claustrophobia of the economically straitened Berger household is lost in the expansive gulch of the theater's arena stage - and the play's naturalism is further compromised by the designer John Conklin's immaculately artsy backdrop of tenement roofs. The director, Theodore Mann, sends his actors marching in and out efficiently, rarely capturing the spontaneous brio of a family that is forever disintegrating into messy, boisterous squabbles.
Some of the performances are near or on target. At first, Miss Marchand seems to shy away from the iron-willed mother, perhaps for fear of falling into stereotype, but she later shows us both Bessie's spine and tragic delusions. As her father, the ineffectual idealist who bequeaths his spirit to Ralph, the shuffling, crotchety Paul Sparer is a full-blooded comic creation until he hams up his final, sadder scenes. In the smaller roles of Bessie's broken husband and successful brother, Dick Latessa and Michael Lombard offer crisp, expert cameos.
But, until the end, Mr. Waites's Ralph is more rowdy than impassioned; we see his decency but not his sensitivity or fervor. His brave sister, Hennie, comes across as a Barbara Stanwyck-styled tart in Frances McDormand's totally misjudged performance, and Hennie's unassimilated husband is reduced to a burlesque caricature by Benjamin Hendrickson. Harry Hamlin forcefully conveys the cynical bravura of the family's boarder, the petty racketeer Moe Axelrod, while neglecting his underlying conscience and vulnerability. When he and Miss McDormand contemplate running away together, a potentially touching merging of desperate, lost souls seems instead a sexual transaction out of ''Bonnie and Clyde.''
It's likely that ''Awake and Sing!'' can never again go, in the author's words, like ''a house on fire.'' The play is just not good enough. But that doesn't lessen the importance of the breakthrough Odets made in 1935 - or excuse the sloppiness of this revival in 1984.