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

By Harry Haun
April 18, 2006

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).

Tony-winning Clark won’t be touring the show. It’s enough that she will stay on the horse till the buzzer sounds July 2. (The show is going out in style with a “Live From Lincoln Center” telecast on June 15.) “Oh, there are many actresses who could do that role and do it very well,” she sunnily insisted. “I’m going to rest. I need some family time and some vacation time, and then we’ll see where we are.” Where we are could be South Pacific.

“Oh, I’d love to have Victoria Clark in that—she would be perfect for it,” said Sher, who will be in charge of directing this first Broadway revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Pulitzer Prize winner. “We’re really very preliminary now. Mostly, what we know is Andre and I have to get together, sit down and start thinking about it maybe next week.” After that, he has a full and eclectic plate. "Next, I do Richard III at Intiman, starting in May, with a guy named Steve Polinsky. And I’m doing The Barber of Seville at The Met.”

Director Mark Lamos just got his opera up at New York City Opera on April 16—Handel’s Acis and Galatea—and is now focusing on two new plays. He starts rehearsing in June an A. R. Gurney opus called Indian Blood and will open it in early August at Primary Stages with John McMartin, Rebecca Luker, Pamela Payton Wright, Jack Gilpin, Kathleen McGrath and Matthew Arkin. “It’s a little memoir about a boy growing up rebellious in Buffalo right after World War II.” Then he will stage Alfred Uhry’s The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara at the new Guthrie in October.

Uhry, whose latest (Without Walls with Laurence Fishburne), hits L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum June 11-July 16, is currently workshopping with director-choreographer Martha Clarke a new piece called Ann, The Word , based on a book by that name about Mother Ann Lee, who started the Shaker Movement. Frances McDormand plays the title role, and Michael Berresse is her brother. Denis O’Hare and Michael Stuhlbarg co-star.

Berresse earlier in the day picked up a Lortel Award nomination certificate for his choreography of [title of show], a show at the Vineyard that he also directed. “The most likely possibility is that [title of show] will have a longer life, possibly in that theatre but not necessarily. Our producer, Kevin McCollum, is involved with The Drowsy Chaperone right now. Those two shows prove he really does have his heart in the right place. The reason he’s drawn to both those pieces is the art form. The initial impulse was about creation, and I really respect that he’s willing to take those kinds of chances.”

Pointing himself toward tomorrow, Berresse will be Zak when A Chorus Line reforms for an Oct. 5 opening on Broadway. And he’s adapting a piece he’ll direct, hopefully with Christine Ebersole , whose mighty performance(s) in Grey Gardens missed a Lortel nod.

Although exact and eclectic, the casting of Awake and Sing! is very unexpected. And none of the actors is more surprising to find here than Wanamaker, a brilliant American-born British actress who visits Broadway rarely but never without a Tony nomination and always with a different accent. She has been French (in 1981’s Piaf), British (in 1986’s Loot) and Greek (in 1999’s Electric)—and now she is adding Jewish to the ethnic mix.

Why did she want to do this role? One has to ask. “Because it means a lot to me and my family, where I came from, my roots, everything I know.” Her father, actor Sam Wanamaker, was bedevilled by the same zealous Commie witchhunters that plagued Odets. “My father was ruined by the blacklisting in this country so he went to England, because he knew that he would be subpoenaed and he wouldn’t name names.”

Sitting at Wanamaker’s opening-night table was Madeline Gilford, widow of the wonderful Jack Gilford, whose career was derailed by the same sinister forces.

Gazarra, who does not brook inanities, was asked as he briskly entered the party with his beautiful wife Elke if he enjoyed doing the play. “No,” he barked, not breaking his stride, “I don’t enjoy it.” Later, however, when the question was slightly recycled for him, he did manage to laugh somewhat derisively. “I don’t understand what that means. It’s a great play and a great company of actors and a great director—of course, I had a great time.”

It is a favorite play of his. He never saw Morris Carnovsky do the grandfather role, but he did know “from the Actors’ Studio” John Randolph who did the part in a previous Broadway revival. Not that the past really matters with this particular play, he said. “I don’t think anybody knew how to do Awake and Sing! until we did it tonight. It always failed. I think Odets finally is being done the way he should be done, and now maybe people will understand what he’s about. I met Odets a few times, and I often think of him when I’m on stage. I wish he were alive to see this production. I’m quite proud of this.”

Ruffalo, who has racked three or four Off-Broadway performances (including a Theatre World Award-winning one for his debut here in Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth), is only now getting around to his Broadway debut. He came close to making it in the role that made Gazarra an unalloyed star—Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—but negotiations fell apart at the last moment. His role, Moe Axelrod, the oddly sympathetic roue who wants to rescue our heroine from her humdrummery, was originally played Luther Adler, the brother of his acting teacher, Stella Adler, who originated the Bessie role. And, by way of thanks, he appears in the documentary on Stella Adler. “I worked with her several times out there [in California], and she let me have it a few times,” he recalled affectionately. “I loved her.”

Eisenberg didn’t bother to downplay the joy he was having with his role. “I had a blast, an absolute blast, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t really been working on it. We were in the rehearsal room for three and a half weeks, and the entire preview period has also been very intensive. We’ve been changing things day to day and finding new things and having an epiphany and saying ‘Let’s do it that way.” Each night was a different thing.”

Hadary actually wears his happiness with this assignment via his new chrome dome. “I offered my pate,” he admitted cheerfully. “There’s less hair up here than used to be. I shaved it off. There was really no other way. The character’s bald. He has a line or two about losing his hair and becoming bald, so bald was what was called for. And here I am!”

The gangly Schreiber is abundantly aware of the star that first shot out of his character: “Jules Garfield,” he piped up knowingly. “Should I be knocking on wood at this point?

“The role is a monster. The arc of the character is massive. Every night’s an adventure.”