In her 1983 book From Stereotype to Metaphor: The Jew in Contemporary Drama, Ellen Schiff calls Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing! “the earliest quintessentially Jewish play outside the Yiddish theatre. It bears the unmistakable stamp of authenticity, exactly what one would wish from a Jewish dramatist writing a slice of Jewish life problem play.” That stamp of authenticity is at the center of a new version by New Yiddish Rep, continuing at the Theater at the 14th Street Y through Christmas Eve. The show is adapted and directed by New Yiddish Rep artistic director David Mandelbaum, using Chaver Paver’s Yiddish translation for Jacob Mestel’s 1938 Federal Theatre production. During the Depression, the Berger family is trying to get by in their crowded Bronx apartment, where they are not exactly living the immigrant American dream. Matriarch Bessie Berger (Ronit Asheri-Sandler) is desperate for her children to marry well, but son Ralph (Moshe Lobel), a wannabe entertainer, is secretly dating a young woman from a poor family and daughter Hennie (Mira Kessler) doesn’t seem to like any of her suitors, who include Moe Axelrod (Gera Sandler), a shady operator who lost his leg in the war, and Sam Feinschreiber (Luzer Twersky), for whom Hennie has no desire. Bessie’s husband, Myron (Eli Rosen), is a gentle man who can’t keep a good job and instead puts money on the horses, while Bessie’s elderly father, Jacob (Mandelbaum), wanders around the apartment listening to opera and spouting Marxist doctrine. Bessie’s sister, Mimi (Amy Coleman), occasionally stops by to gossip and gloat. When Hennie gets pregnant and the man who did it is instantly out of the picture, the close-knit but argumentative family has some important decisions to make, facing difficult choices in very hard times.
Awake and Sing! premiered on Broadway in 1935 with the sensational cast of Luther Adler, Stella Adler, Morris Carnovsky, John Garfield, and Sanford Meisner. In 2013, the National Asian American Theatre Co. staged a strong version with an all-Asian cast. But the show really feels at home in this Yiddish production, featuring a charming apartment set by Nathan Rosen, with an old radio and Victrola, a kitchen table, a couch, an armchair, and a daybed in the corner of the living room, where Ralph sleeps. The Bergers complain about life and love in Yiddish, with English supertitles. The whole thing is warm and comfy, with an emphasis on the status and power of women in Jewish families; the men in the show are at the mercy of the women. In addition, the part of Mimi was originally written for a man, Morty, but it has been skillfully changed to a successful businesswoman, something that was relatively unusual in 1930s America. Asheri-Sandler, who is married to Sandler in real life, is wonderfully domineering as Bessie, while Lobel ably personifies a man refusing to give up on his dreams. The play sounds absolutely lovely in Yiddish, flowing with the beauty and angst ingrained in the language like no other. It’s almost disappointing when English words or lines suddenly show up, probably because there’s no legitimate translation for them. The theater is also filled with Yiddish songs as the audience enters and during intermission, adding to the nostalgic atmosphere. Established in 2013 to keep Yiddish theater alive, New Yiddish Rep has previously staged Waiting for Godot, Death of a Salesman, Rhinoceros, and a double bill of one-acts by Wolf Mankowitz. Awake and Sing! is a natural for them, and they do Odets, and Yiddish theater, proud.