46 Walker St.
Tuesday - Sunday, through September 8, $25
It’s been fifty years since writer and director Clifford Odets died of stomach cancer at the age of fifty-seven, and it is thrilling to see his work currently undergoing a kind of renaissance. Late last year, a seventy-fifth anniversary production of Golden Boy opened on Broadway and was nominated for a Tony, and this past spring brought the first Broadway revival of the 1949 Hollywood drama The Big Knife. But the National Asian American Theatre Co. (NAATCO) takes a somewhat different approach in its wonderfully small-scale, deeply intimate version of Odets’s first, and one of his best, plays, Awake and Sing! Written for Odets’s Group Theatre in 1935, the play follows the exploits of the Berger family, who live together in a cramped Bronx apartment. It’s 1933, and the Great Depression is continuing to take its toll. The household is run by domineering mother Bessie (NAATCO cofounder and artistic producing director Mia Katigbak), who is married to the meek and often clueless Myron (Henry Yuk). Son Ralph (Jon Norman Schneider) has no career direction and a girlfriend his mother disapproves of, while daughter Hennie (Teresa Avia Lim) has just gotten knocked up, with the man who did it out of the picture. While Bessie tries to orchestrate and control everyone’s lives, her father, Jacob (Alok Tewari), spouts Marxist doctrine and her well-dressed brother, Morty (Andrew Ramcharan Guilarte), waxes poetic about success in business. Also hanging around is Moe Axelrod (Sanjit De Silva), a street-smart character who offers his own take on the future.
As opposed to its two big-time Broadway productions — Awake and Sing! premiered on the Great White Way in 1935, directed by Harold Clurman and starring Luther Adler, Stella Adler, Morris Carnovsky, John Garfield, and Sanford Meisner, while the Tony-winning 2006 revival was directed by Bartlett Sher and featured Ben Gazzara, Zoe Wanamaker, Mark Ruffalo, Lauren Ambrose, and Pablo Schreiber — NAATCO’s three-act production takes place in the reconfigured Walkerspace theater in SoHo, where Anshuman Bhatia’s set design consists of a dining-room table, a couch, and some chairs in a narrow rectangular center area, with the fifty-member audience seated in two rows on the longer sides, making them feel like part of the family. The all-Asian cast gives splendid performances as the Jewish clan, a conceit that lends additional insight into the general themes of poverty, class, and pride, resulting in a more universal scope. Katigbak is particularly effective as the manipulative mother, while De Silva stands out as Axelrod, a voice of reason amid the escalating chaos. Directed by Shakespearean Stephen Fried, the play benefits strongly from the intense eye contact the characters make with one another, something that gets lost on larger stages but is powerful and dramatic here. The Bergers might not find that the streets of America are paved with gold, but this production of Awake and Sing! is very rich indeed.