By Clifford Odets, Translated into Yiddish by Chaver Paver;
Directed by David Mendelbaum
Produced by New Yiddish Rep
Off Broadway, Play Revival
Runs through 12.24.17
14th Street Y, 344 East 14th Street
by Gabriella Steinberg on 12.10.17
L-R: Ronit Asheri, Moshe Lobel, Lea Kalisch, David Mandelbaum,
and Eli Rosen in Awake and Sing! Photo by Pedro Hernandez.
BOTTOM LINE: A heartbreaking and gorgeous Yiddish version of the classic American play that wrestles with economic disparity in Depression-era New York.
When you ask those in the Jewish and Yiddish-speaking community how the language is doing, you can expect to hear the following answers: “It’s a dying language.” Or, “we’re experiencing a revival!” I may generalize a bit, but The New Yiddish Rep is able to answer the call of saving the language among mainstream Jews and theatre-goers. The Rep is also reviving the culture’s vitality, which to many, never went away in the first place—you just need to know where to look.
As a progressive Jew living in Brooklyn, I am fortunate to hear Yiddish everywhere. It’s still spoken as a first language in many Chasidic households, and on the other side of the spectrum, there’s a resurgence among leftists in the Ashkenazi community yearning to recreate the culture that almost died out at the hands of the Nazis (and with political turmoil bringing up that particular historical memory, no wonder they are clinging to the mother tongue.) The Rep provides both solutions—it won’t let the Yiddish language die, and it will revive Yiddish culture.
I appreciate the Rep’s attention to detail when choosing their productions. Clifford Odets' Awake and Sing! is a great choice for a company looking to analyze the Jewish American experience in 2017. The 1935 play tells the story of the Berger family in the Bronx, a working-class Jewish family concerned with survival and importance. Matriarch Bessie (Ronit Asheri) holds the family together like glue with her strong will and ever-present fear of the unknown, including possible eviction and losing her family to assimilation. With her subdued husband Myron (Eli Rosen), a law school dropout who relies on gambling for any semblance of a financial future, Bessie has two children, Hennie (Mira Kessler) and Ralph (Moshe Lobel).
When Hennie becomes pregnant, her mother arranges a quick marriage with Sam (Luzer Twersky), a meek man who rents a room from the family. Another boarder, Moe Axelrod (Gera Sandler), who’s embraces a nouveau riche lifestyle, is full of boisterous masculinity; he pines for Hennie but has trouble expressing his feelings. Meanwhile, Ralph is in love with a girl in Manhattan, but cannot build a future with her because the little money he has goes towards supporting his own family. Appalled by his sister's shotgun union, and constantly cut down by his mother, Ralph leans into his grandfather Jacob (David Mandelbaum), a jolly, leftist idealist who loves music and scripture.
The structure of this family is much more a commentary on economic disruption than it is a recalling of a family’s personal drama. Odets cleverly includes a multitude of perspectives that resonate with audiences to this day. The brilliance of this production, and Chaver Paver’s translation (Paver had translated Awake and Sing! for the burgeoning Second Avenue Yiddish theatre community of yore) is that it allows the family's fears to resonate within a language that is second nature to many and at the same time, dying out for others. Listening to Bessie bemoan the fate of her family in a language that represents so much history (of both despair and joy) is a deeply moving experience.
New Yiddish Rep's production at the 14th Street Y is fascinating, and the acting is the winning feature. Founding member David Mandelbaum directs and plays a delightful Jacob, and co-founder Amy Coleman is a gender-bent Uncle Morty (as Aunt Mimi) who often speaks in English—a symbol of her successful assimilation into mainstream society. As Bessie, Asheri is a powerhouse of matriarchal control who teeters on the ballistic, as Odets intended. Lobel plays Ralph with a heartbreak I haven’t seen in previous productions. The use of Yiddish lends itself well to the divide between Ralph and his love Blanche (who he keeps secret from his family)—he speaks to her over the phone in English. I’ve seen actors play Ralph with pent-up frustration, but Lobel reaches for the despair of this character with great maturity.
I am impressed with how this ensemble leans into gender dynamics and flips them on their head. Mandelbaum’s direction leaves room for male vulnerability—every male character cries audibly at least once—and lets the female characters stand as beacons of strength against the men who are putty in their hands (even Hennie has a line in the text, “I never cry,” before she breaks down in front of Myron—the one exception to this dynamic). I appreciate this foray into another layer of commentary in Odets' text: a broken economy affects all genders.
The production is lovely and simple. In more elaborate productions of Awake and Sing!, the plentiful furniture can be difficult for actors to navigate in moments of great turmoil. This isn't to say Nathan Rhoden's design is subpar—he successfully executes a lavish set with great respect for the supertitles, which are easy to see when watching the action. But New Yiddish Rep’s production honors what a Bronx family of the time would experience. Gail Cooper-Hecht's costumes offer subdued color palates for the family, with brighter hues for Moe and Mimi in their quest for economic success. And Jesse Freedman’s sound design, a kaleidoscope of 1930s Yiddish classics mixed in with some nostalgia pieces (period-specific radio ads and news items) is well done. Shout out to the show’s producers—your rye bread budget must be through the roof, but that small touch is worth it!
The New Yiddish Rep expertly balances the play's nostalgia with an understanding that its themes permeate our current society. Yiddish theatre answers a unique call when it comes to Awake and Sing! In a time when speaking Yiddish evokes the perils of the past, experiencing a story like Awake and Sing! is a large task. This production shows how the hope for the future of Yiddish theatre lies in hearty pieces about economic disparity...and love, and heartache, and family.
(Awake and Sing! plays at the 14th Street Y, 344 East 14th Street, through December 24, 2017. The running time is 2 hours with an intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30; Saturdays at 2 and 7:30; and Sundays at 2 (12/17) or 7:30 (12/24). Tickets are $45 and are available at 14streety.org or by calling 646-395-4310. For more information visit newyiddishrep.org.)
Awake and Sing! is by Clifford Odets, with Yiddish translation by Chaver Paver. Directed by David Mendelbaum. Set and Lighting Design by Nathan Rhoden. Costume Design by Gail Cooper-Hecht. Sound Design by Jesse Freedman. Stage Manager is Mimi Barcomi. Assistant Stage Manager is Seth Majnoon.
The cast is Ronit Asheri, Amy Coleman, Lea Kalisch, Mira Kessler, Moshe Lobel, David Mandelbaum, Eli Rosen, Gera Sandler, and Luzer Twersky.