I heard today from a friend whose cousin, a funny, bright man with four daughters, went missing last week. Fortunately, the police found him before he could commit the suicide he was contemplating. Despite two jobs, he had sunk deep into debt, a fact he had hidden even from his wife.
He was on my mind as I thought about Clifford Odets' Awake and Sing! playing at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre. Born into a poor, Jewish immigrant family and raised in the Bronx, Odets was a young man by the time of the Great Depression, when he wrote his poetic, passionate masterpiece, Awake and Sing! The play held up a mirror to that moment: families evicted onto sidewalks, workers struggling ineffectually for fair treatment, and an ever-widening gap between the obscenely rich and the desperately poor — scenes too familiar in our own moment.
As the play opens, three generations of the Berger family live in a cramped Bronx apartment: Bessie and Myron; their grown children, Hennie and Ralph; and Bessie's father, Jacob. Hennie is beautiful, proud and cynical beyond her years. Ralph yearns to make something of his life, but his obligation to contribute to the family's keep traps him in a dead-end, low-paying job. Myron is ineffectual and charming, and Jacob is devoted equally to communist ideology and recordings of Caruso — both promises of paradise. So it is up to Bessie — vigorous, shrewd, shrewish — to keep the wolves from the door.
Jeanne Averill delves deeply into the role of Bessie, embodying her as a formidable force of nature while deftly unfolding her complexities and insecurities. Bessie's imperious manner is belied by the awkward, hip-heavy walk that Averill gives her. There's a delicacy to the way Averill holds herself — feet braced for a brawl, hands clasped like a lady — that speaks volumes about how Bessie wishes her life had been different. Despite her manipulations, belligerence and hypocrisy, Bessie is not a monster but a mother who wants her children's lives to be better.
When Hennie gets pregnant, Bessie schemes to marry her off to Sam Feinschreiber, an unwitting immigrant whose devotion blinds him to the truth. Coleman Crenshaw paints an affecting portrait of Sam as an innocent bystander whose heartbreak may be the play's one true moment of unmediated anguish.
But Hennie has another suitor: sharp-dressed racketeer Moe Axelrod, who's as hard-boiled, unsavory and secretly romantic as a Raymond Chandler character, with the same rat-a-tat wiseguy speech. Despite the megawatt current of attraction between them, Hennie rejects him, at least in part because he's "a cripple," a wooden-legged veteran of the great world war. In a mercurial, prickly role, Doogin Brown's thoughtfully shaped performance makes us root for Axelrod.
Robert Gibby Brand is competently pleasant as Bessie's milquetoast husband, Myron, but more glimmers of the cracks in his façade might have revealed the method behind the blandness. Greg Butell's depiction of Uncle Morty, Bessie's mogul union-busting brother, seems at first a comical treat, a broadly irresistible urban-shtetl buffoon, until the extent of his selfishness and indifference to his family's fate emerges.
At least Butell looks the part. Period-appropriate hair and makeup on all the characters — not just some — would have gone a long way. But the bigger unevenness is in the casting. The veterans prove their worth, making the younger actors suffer sometimes by comparison. Sam Cordes as Ralph and Natalie Liccardello as Hennie are committed and appealing, but they're undermined by what seem fundamental voice-production issues, with shrillness superseding character development, especially in climactic scenes. A far more serious version of the issue plagued the young lead of the MET's last production, suggesting a need for stronger guidance from director Karen Paisley.
By contrast, as Jacob, Bessie's starry-eyed ideologue father, Richard Alan Nichols holds the stage effortlessly, rarely raising his voice above a conversational tone, even during flights of revolutionary poetry. When he urges Ralph, "Go out and fight, so life shouldn't be printed on dollar bills," it is a clarion call that not only stirs but also, for a moment, sounds possible.
If Awake and Sing! seems quaint, it's not because the same problems are no longer with us, but rather because they have become so commonplace and magnified that outrage seems ridiculously naïve — as in Uncle Morty's repeated exhortations, "Get practical!" Although the ending of Awake and Sing! is compromised by the sentimentality of an earlier time, the MET's strong production gives radical inspiration to ponder our own.
Whereas Awake and Sing! poured out of Odets' social idealism, Plaid Tidings was assembled from the most commercial components available and precision-engineered for maximum holiday cheer. Unfortunately, it underperforms manufacturer's claims.
It doesn't help that Tidings takes the approach of slicing and dicing songs into a paté. There's also a distressingly labored framing device. Beyond that, there are plungers as dance partners and jokes from the Grandpa Groaners file. Audience reaction the night I attended hovered around a tepid chuckle until midway through Act 2, when a giant video of Perry Como suddenly reminded us what effortless charisma looks and sounds like. The crowd broke into thunderous applause, which might also have been relief at a song delivered at last without senseless mangling.
Adam Branson, Grant Golson, Ian Subsara and Seth Golay make a sharp foursome in their white smoking jackets and gleaming tuxedo loafers, and Anthony Edwards' piano and Brian Wilson's bass provide the usual reliable backing, but the barbershop blend only sometimes attains the heavenly. What's more, for long stretches, poor Seth Golay is the only performer playing a character as well as singing, his bushy-tailed, perky-eared delivery (let's just say he may be the peppiest bell ringer you'll ever see) reminiscent of Rudolph gamely trying to pull the sleigh all on his own.
The show gets its biggest thrills when Alex Perry's hotel ballroom gives birth to a winter wonderland straight out of White Christmas, and the quartet does the work of an octet on a hilarious, prop-heavy vaudeville extravaganza that might best be summed up as "The Ed Sullivan Show in three sweaty minutes." I suspect that my lack of enthusiasm is a generational fault; Plaid Tidings may be perfect for aunts or grandparents who enjoy mash-ups of "Bésame Mucho," "Mambo Italiano" and "Let It Snow." Still, there should be more glad in these Plaid Tidings.