Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July, 2001
(NOTE: Dylan McDermott does not appear in this production as previously advertised, although his wife, Shiva Rose, does.)
I could have cared less about the loud and hysterical group of actors assembled on the Berkshire Theatre Festival for Clifford Odets dated and bizarre tale of Jewish family life in the Bronx during the Great Depression. I didn?t really believe they knew each other, let alone that they were a family. Death, birth, marriage, lust, lies, tears all left me cold. Was it the fault of the play ? the work of a very young man? The fault of director, Elina de Santos? The fault of the actors? The product of the short rehearsal time allowed for a summer stock production? And just where was Dylan McDermott?
As we departed the theatre my husband said to me, “The only reason I would want to stage that play would be to stage it better.” And I have to say that I agreed with him. Why anyone, particularly a woman, would chose to stage this play is beyond me. Odets was a mere 27 when he wrote it in 1933. And it is fairly blatantly autobiographical. Odets (1906-1963), born Gorodetsky, was the son of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants who spent some of his formative years in the Bronx, and there is no doubt that he put a lot of himself in to the character of young Ralph Berger.
I ask why a woman would want to stage this play because I found the whole thing decidedly misogynist. The two female characters in the play – matriarch Bessie Berger and her 20-something daughter Hennie – lie to, emasculate, and cuckold their men. At the close of the play Bessie is about to cheat her son Ralph out of his inheritance from her father, and we are supposed to be happy that daughter Hennie chooses to abandon her husband and baby to go to Havana with a one-legged con man. In fact, Hennie’s behavior is glorified, it is the act of awakening and singing referred to in the title. Odets, who later in life was left to raise his son and daughter alone after his second wife died, must have deeply regretted his earlier portrayal of Hennie as a heroine. In fact he wrote in the introduction to his first published collection of plays in 1939:
“When these plays were written it was almost impossible for me to do more or differently with them. Much of them was felt, conceived and written out of a personal need. Now after the fact, after the melancholy facts, the writer is a better craftsman, his horizon lifting wider. That temptation to improve upon these plays is often present. Nevertheless, none has been rewritten in part or whole: let them stand, crudities and all, as a small parade of a young talent discovering and shaping itself.”
That being said, and by the author himself, it is evident that Awake and Sing! is a show which requires some star power to draw an audience in this day and age. So I will very quietly ask again, “Where was Dylan McDermott?” I am usually the last person to hear the latest gossip, and I do not live or work in the Stockbridge area, so I have obviously missed whatever caused McDermott not to be on the stage with wife Shiva Rose at the BTF last night. But the silence surrounding his non-appearance feels ominous. Had he been forced to depart due to illness or family crisis surely our sympathies would have been evoked and his replacement, Mark Feuerstein, praised for heroically stepping in at the last minute. The burning question in my mind is, just when did Feuerstein have to take over the role? Yesterday? Last week? This would certainly have a big impact on the entire production. Not knowing how long this group of actors actually had together as a company, and what the loss of McDermott may have done to their morale ? let alone the dynamics between the characters ? it is hard to assess how much of the failure of this show is due to circumstances far beyond the control of actors or director.
It was my impression that the only person on the stage who could really act was David Margolies, who played Jacob Berger, father of Bessie and grandfather of Ralph and Hennie. I could not stand Marilyn Fox as Bessie. She was too young for the role and her voice was shrill and grating. I am sad to see that this is not the first time she has been cast in this part. Bessie is not a sympathetic character and Fox did nothing to help me understand where she was coming from with her lies and manipulation. Rose was pretty to look at as Hennie, but there was absolutely NO chemistry between her and Feuerstein’s Moe, which made Hennie’s decision to abandon husband and child for him even more distasteful and again raises the question of just how long Feuerstein had to rehearse (or even learn his lines!) and just what was going on behind the scenes that Rose was on stage and McDermott was not. A short rehearsal time probably accounts for Feuerstein’s inability to remember at all times that Moe’s left leg was supposed to be fake.
Alas poor, BTF! Poor de Santos, poor actors! What a pity you all couldn?t have postponed or cancelled this snake-bitten production. But such are the demands of summer theatre that the show must go on. Luckily you, as an audience member, are under no such compulsion to buy a ticket.
Awake and Sing, runs through July 28 on the Main Stage at the Berkshire Theatre Festival (413-298-5536) between Rts. 7 & 102 in Stockbridge. The show runs about two and a half hours with two intermissions.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2001