Yes, they’re celebrities, but can they act?
This week the L.A. Theatre Works puts on Clifford Odets’ 1935 masterpiece Awake and Sing! at the Skirball Center in the Sepulveda Pass. This is a part of a weekly series of radio broadcasts for NPR and features some big names. For example, Mark Ruffalo, Richard Kind, Jane Kaczmarek, and even Ben Gazzara, Mr. Lebowski from The Big Lebowski.
But names don’t matter to me. Acting does. That written, Awake and Sing! is such a tight, well-constructed play, it is almost impossible to do wrong. Shunned because of Odets’ questionable involvement with the House Un-American Activities Committee, the play lived in semi-obscurity for many years, only to be revived on Broadway in 2006 with a production that won several Tonys. The play today still feels fresh and vital, Odets’ masterful story of a Bronx family in the midst of the Depression could be pretty much set today. Daughter gets pregnant, son has ambitions to move out but can’t afford it, grandpa is depressed, none of these scenarios feels old-fashioned. The dialogue has an emotional resonance that connects audiences of any generation, though, to a pretty heartfelt story.
So, let’s talk about the acting. This being a radio play, the actors were under a severe handicap; instead of being able to move about, block, emote, or anything else, all they really did was speak, stand up, and sit down. Of course, for what they could do—project, they tried to match the intensity of the script. Most of the actors, like Mark Ruffalo and Ben Gazzara, had performed this on Broadway, after all. But what was missing was a clear sense of pacing and cohesion throughout the play; the actors only had a week to rehearse after all, and it takes time, months often, to build a solid level of teamwork among the cast. All of the cast worked hard to portray a working class Jewish family; that any of them could pull it off was commendable; for all of them to would be nearly a miracle.
Nevertheless, it was a great experience. It’s hard to imagine life in the Bronx during winter in Southern California, any time of year. But there are other aspects of the script—the down economy, the dysfunctional family, the longing to be free of this dysfunctional family—that seemed ageless to me.