Quintessence Theatre Group has revived a deserving American classic and given it to an exceptional ensemble featuring both ringers (TV/film long-timers Buzz Roddy and Lawrence Pressman) and local faces (Lee Cortopassi, Sabrina Profitt, D.J. Gleason). The result is Awake and Sing!, running at the Quintessence through Feb. 17. In this outfit’s hands, it’s a very awake play that sings aloud.
This 1935 Clifford Odets masterpiece helped get the Group Theatre through the Depression, made Odets’ name, and threw its shadow over many American plays to come, by everyone from Arthur Miller to Woody Allen. It’s much more than “a Jewish family play” — it makes the question of life’s meaning concrete, full of muscle and blood. On Meghan Jones’ eloquently shabby set, this talented group gives a performance that is tight, sure of its dynamics, and fully behind the message that life should not be “written on dollar bills.”
Odets' people are under pressure, all hopes mortgaged, yet the heart still cries out. Three generations of the Berger family live in a small apartment in the Bronx. It’s 1933, as the Depression craters all around, money anxiety within and without; almost everything done or said has some relation to making or spending money. How to have a future in a world that denies all futures except for the rich?
I count no fewer than eight strong through-lines, and each actor rises to the challenge. Profitt plays materfamilias Bessie Berger as a wheedling, dominating presence, stifling disagreement, hatching plots, throttling her men with threats, tears, and insults. Bradley Mott is wondrous as her useless, all but invisible husband, Myron. One great line: “The day I started losing my hair, I knew I was destined to be a failure.”
Cortopassi is just as good as Moe Axelrod, a racketeer who lost a leg in World War I and who has loved daughter Hennie (willful and confused as played by Melody Ladd) since the couple’s first fling. He’s also moving in as a boarder (uh-oh). Moe also has the best ‘30s patter: In admiration of young Ralph Berger (fresh-faced DJ Gleason), who makes a late break for a future, Moe says, “I wouldn’t trade you for two pitchers and an outfielder.”
Have to say, the two ringers kill it. Roddy plays Uncle Morty, a weekly visitor and the very personification of the moneyed owners of the means of production. Roddy plays the heck out of the role: You don’t hate him even though you see his blindnesses. He’s flamboyant, proud of his achievements, and he wants to help his poor relations, to a point. Fellow ringer Pressman similarly illumines Jacob, the grandfather and failed chorus, lecturing on Marx and the great Red Sea that will break over the heads of the rich. He exhorts Ralph to “carry within yourself a revolution.” Pressman breaks hearts for miles as he delights in his records of Caruso singing “O Paradiso” from Meyerbeer’s L’Africana. So ironic: America is no Paradise, nor are we in it.
The young people are the crux, the only ones with any real chance of escape. Ralph is the battleground, with Moe and Jacob working for him and Bessie and Uncle Morty against. Hennie, what of her? Ladd is tremendous in her moment of doubt and hesitation.
If you like theater, Awake and Sing! has what you go to theater for. The cast, both stars and locals, reach across 84 years with music and message that have stayed startlingly, dismayingly fresh.