Critic's Choice

'Awake & Sing!' at Odyssey Theatre: A sensation is back, fiery as ever

About 20 years ago director Elina de Santos helmed a landmark production of “Awake &  Sing!” that ran for nine months to sellout houses at the Odyssey Theatre in West L.A.

Now De Santos revisits Clifford Odets’ Depression-era classic, once again at the Odyssey. And while Odets’ fervently polemical play may seem overwrought at intervals, De Santos gives the production the wrenching authenticity and craft born of long familiarity with the material.

The action is set in a modest Bronx apartment inhabited by three generations of the Berger family. Jacob (Allan Miller) is an unregenerate Communist whose idealistic fulminations aggravate his daughter, Bessie (Marilyn Fox). Married to the hapless Myron (Robert Lesser), Bessie expects her son, Ralph (James Morosini), to succeed where his father and grandfather have failed -- but Ralph is beginning to resist her rule.

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At Bessie's insistence, her pregnant daughter Hennie (Melissa Paladino) reluctantly traps naïve young immigrant Sam (Gary Patent) into marriage, much to the frustration of Moe Axelrod (David Agranov), a World War I veteran with a fierce yen for Hennie. Then there's Bessie's wealthy brother Morty (Richard Fancy), whose infrequent visits reduce Bessie from towering nag to fawning supplicant.

Superb design elements create the period ambience, while the strong cast, which includes Dennis Madden as the building's super, temper Odets' slice-of-life poeticism with a richly colloquial flair.

Derided and dismissed by his own offspring, Miller's doomed Jacob is a Lear on the heath, blasted by the rising storm of untrammeled capitalism. A scrappy survivor of that storm, Agranov's magnificent Moe is full of bitterness and yearning that only Hennie can ease.

However, the center of the production is Fox, who reprises the role she first played here 20 years ago. Repugnant yet strangely sympathetic, her Bessie steamrollers on -- valiantly and deplorably -- through the wreckage of Depression America. It's a titanic turn not to be missed.

“Awake & Sing!” Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 and 5 p.m. Sundays. Also 8 p.m. some Wednesdays and Thursdays. Ends Nov. 29. $15-$34. (310) 477-2055, Ext. 2. www.OdysseyTheatre.com. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

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