PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Awake and Sing: Odets, Poordets

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18 Apr 2006

Zoe Wanamaker; Lauren Ambrose; Elke and Ben Gazzara; Ned Eisenberg and Richard Topol; Bartlett Sher; Jack O'Brien; Celia Keenan-Bolger; Michael Hall; Joanna Gleason and Victoria Clark.
Zoe Wanamaker; Lauren Ambrose; Elke and Ben Gazzara; Ned Eisenberg and Richard Topol; Bartlett Sher; Jack O'Brien; Celia Keenan-Bolger; Michael Hall; Joanna Gleason and Victoria Clark.
Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Awake and Sing!, with its convincing melancholy cry of the Depression’s tenement-poor, seems oddly at home amid the old-fashioned rococo splendors of the Belasco, where it opened April 17—as well it should: This is the same theatre where the play first awoke and sang to an astonished and quickly converted Broadway audience Feb. 19, 1935, and established its 28-year-old author as the man of the hour—the Marxist messiah of his time.

Clifford Odets wrote this play on what he called his trusty “Ambition Corona,” in a room so tiny he had to type in his lap (according to The New Yorker’s John Lahr, quoting Elia Kazan). By the end of ‘35, Odets was King of the Main Stem—with an unprecedented four plays going simultaneously on all agitprop cylinders—and then he was outta here, off to Hollywood to write lines like “We could make beautiful music together” for Sam Goldwyn and marry an exotic European actress who would be the first person to win—and win consecutively—two Oscars, thus eclipsing his hard-earned glory and sending him back to the drawing board and New York. But that, as Scheherazade said, is another story . . .

The story that has come back home to the Belasco stage is very much a product of the era—an empathetic, almost autobiographical time-marker about a Jewish family struggling through the depths of the Depression in a cramped and overcrowded Bronx apartment.

Bessie Berger ( Zoe Wanamaker) is the mother hen who holds everything together under wings of steel. Her hubby, Myron (Jonathan Hadary), is, inevitably, henpecked and ineffectual—if well-meaning—and their daughter (Lauren Ambrose) has married a milquetoast (Richard Topol) of her father’s mold, but she keeps a hot eye out for an old flame (Mark Ruffalo), who wants to whisk her off to a happier ending. Bessie’s brother (Ned Eisenberg) brings additional conflict to the table, as does their crusty dad (Ben Gazzara) whose twin gods are Marx and Caruso. Rising above all this dust and domestic malaise is a strapping, skyscraping youth that you can pin your hopes for the future on—young Ralph (6’3” Pablo Schreiber), who’s trapped in a clerical job for no money.

The play is their interplay—“coping” it’s called now—and there was a clinical psychologist in the house who could attest to the ring of truth in the on-stage give-and-take. Walt Odets is the author’s only son—his sister will check the play out later this week—and he is thoroughly familiar with the tenement terrain of the piece. “I think I’ve probably seen 15 productions of this play in the past 30 years, but I’ve never seen one that absolutely flew the way this one did,” he declared. “It has energy. I thought the casting was wonderful, and the more they do the show, the better they will get. The cast is very devoted to the play and shows a great understanding of it. I just thought the whole production was wonderful.”

When asked which of his dad’s plays he’d like to see revived, he opted for a seldom-seen opus of 1938, Rocket to the Moon. “I suppose that’s my personal favorite, and I think there may be a production of that coming up in New York. I can’t tell you any more than that.” This being the centenary of Odets (who died, too soon, at 57 in 1963), there should be a celebratory downpour of his works. The only one on the books for sure right now is The Country Girl, which Manhattan Theatre Club’s Lynne Meadow will direct and open at the Biltmore on May 3. (That title role won Uta Hagen a Tony and Grace Kelly an Oscar.)

Director Bartlett Sher handpicked the cast—“some of them picked me”—and was crowing, at the after-party held in one of the Marriott Marquis’ vast ballrooms, that this was “the best cast I’ve ever had in my whole life.” But he pitched those words rather pianissimo since he was surrounded by almost all of his current other cast who had the night off from The Light in the Piazza—which was one of the reasons that Lincoln Center Theatre’s Andre Bishop and Bernard Gersten put in for a Monday opening.

The advantage of a Monday night opening was apparent in the star power generated. Any performer, playwright or director who’d ever done anything at Lincoln Center seemed to be present and accounted for—plus all of The History Boys and their teachers, Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour. (That show’s director, Nicholas Hytner, did a very distinguished Carousel for Lincoln Center as well as a musical of the Odets-scripted flick, “Sweet Smell of Success.”)

John Guare, who had done the musical book for that (un)Success, appeared to be beaming from the Times rave he got from Ben Brantley earlier in the day for the Signature Theatre Company revival of his Landscape of the Body, but, when pressed, he’d confessed that he hadn’t read the piece. “You should read it for what it said about you, how one-of-a-kind you are,” insisted producer Bill Haber. “Never mind about the play, you should read it for what he said about you as a distinctive American voice.”

“But I know about me,” Guare protested. “Why would I read something I know about?”

He also knows what he’ll do next: a play at the Public next season— A Free Man of Color .

Marian Seldes, more effusive than usual (imagine! ), had reason to be: Terrence McNally had figured out a play that would co-star her with another of McNally’s pets, Zoe Caldwell . Her brother and date-for-the-evening, Timothy Seldes , later suggested she should have spelled the title so she came back and did: “D-E-U-S-C-E. It’s a tennis term.”

The night’s paparazzi flashpoint was Heath Ledger, who’s parsimonious and press-skittish in the extreme (as well he should be: one fotog from Down Under squirted him with a water gun while he was on the red carpet). He adopted the attitude that the commotion that was following him around wasn’t happening and he wasn’t participating in it. Was he there for a particular person? “Yeah, two—Mark and Pablo. I did a film with Pablo called `The Lords of Dogtown.’” Did the evening’s performance make him want to do Broadway? “Er, sure.” End of interview. He was there with his also-Oscar-nominated co-star from “Brokeback Mountain.” No, no—the other one: Michelle Williams .

Another Schreiber supporter on view was the Tony-winning one, Liev Schreiber, who always attends his half-brother’s first nights and always beams with big-bro pride. Right now he’s raring at the bit about the Scottish play he and Jennifer Erle will do in the Park.

Also in the Schreiber camp was his recent scene-partner in Mr. Marmalade, Mamie Gummer, who just moved on to her second play here at Second Stage, joining Tony Goldwyn, Kate Burton, Austin Lysy and director Will Frears’ for Theresa Rebeck’s The Water’s Edge June 14-July 9. The daughter of Meryl Streep was table-hopping with the daughter of Jill Clayburgh at the party. Lily Rabe will finally wrap her untitled indie (once known as “Mostly Martha”) on Wednesday and wind down doing a “SVU” episode.

Mr. Marmalade himself, Michael C. Hall, was also there, but not entirely for Schreiber. Lauren Ambrose, Schreiber’s sister in the play, was Hall’s sister on “Six Feet Under.”

“ER” ex Anthony Edwards, who’s becoming a regular first-night face, just finished a serial-killer film with Ruffalo. “It’s called `Zodiac,’” he said. “We play detectives.”

In from the West Coast was the affable and unflappable Richard Kind, who’s here for the Friday night reading of Xanadu —that’s right: Olivia Newton-John’s legendarily awful 1980 remake of Rita Hayworth’s “Down to Earth.” It is hoped that adapter Douglas Carter Beane will find the funny side of all this and the ever-steady hands of director Christopher Ashley, will give the whole thing a properly dizzy spin. Recruited to that end: Alan Tudyk, Kerry Butler, Mary Testa, Jonathan Freeman and Billy Porter.

More LCT soldiers: Barbara Cook with Harvey Evans, fresh (very!) from 70, Girls, 70; composer William Finn who isn’t just resting on his Spelling Bee bounty but giving back to the Barrington Stage from which it came (“I’m developing a whole new musical community up in Pittsfield. Julie Boyd runs the theatre, and I’m curating and producing a bunch of new musicals. Hopefully, it will be an on-going thing.”); director-conductor Ted Sperling, who’s readying Audra McDonald for her Carnegie concert April 29 and working on the tour of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels; composer Stephen Flaherty, who’s working with his Ragtime teammate Lynn Aherns toward a November workshop of The Glorious Ones (“It’s sort of a group portrait of a troupe of actors in Italy in the early 1600s and shows the ups and downs actors went through then and go through now—the idea of trends, the ingénue growing older, all that. It’s really a love letter to actors.”)

The Piazza contingent included two of the show’s Claras— Kelli O’Hara (now playing The Pajama Game through June 17) and her successor, Katie Clarke, who not only says her name the same as her mother in the show (Victoria Clark) but with the same Texas accent that passes well for North Carolina (Katie’s from Houston; Vicki’s from Dallas).


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