June 24, 2004
Odets Revival Hits Venice, Long Beach
Clifford Odets burst onto Broadway in 1935, when three plays by the 29-year-old actor-writer -- "Waiting for Lefty," "Awake and Sing" and "Paradise Lost" -- opened in the same year.
Odets, the son of Jewish immigrants, was an early member of the fabled Group Theatre in New York, which combined left-wing politics with social realism to help bring American drama into the 20th century.
Some 40 years after this debut, so conservative a critic as Walter Kerr of The New York Times classified Odets as the most talented American playwright next to Eugene O'Neill.
By a happy coincidence, or astute sense of timing, there is a mini-Odets revival under way in the Los Angeles area, with two of his plays now on the boards in Venice and Long Beach.
"Rocket to the Moon" forsakes the proletarian rhetoric of Odets' early plays for a subtler probing of middle-class characters, caught in the Depression and the wearisome routine of their daily lives.
"Rocket" is among Odets' rarely revived dramas, which is our loss as demonstrated by the gripping performance by the Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice, teaming up with the West Coast Jewish Theatre.
Set during a sweltering New York summer in 1938, the action revolves around Ben Stark, a dentist in an unfashionable neighborhood. He is a nice guy, as in "nice guys finish last."
He forgives payments from impoverished patients, doesn't collect rent from his alcoholic partner and buckles under to his embittered wife, Belle, who is utterly frustrated by his unbusinesslike ways.
His father-in-law is the dapper, cynical and wealthy Mr. Prince, hated by Belle and looking for some happiness in his declining years.
In between long waits for patients, various people drop by Stark's office for conversation and drinks at the water cooler. Among them are a podiatrist named Frenchy, partner Phil Cooper, Broadway impresario Willy Wax and Stark's wife.
Enter 19-year-old Bronx-bred Cleo Singer as Stark's new secretary/dental assistant. She is pretty, bubbly, a bit klutzy, a bit silly and up-to-date on the current slang and stage celebrities.
But she has one trait all the others lack: an irrepressible hunger for life and love, which forces those around her to reexamine the rut of their own existence.
Odets' pitch-perfect ear for dialogue is here at its best, and even the outdated slang comes alive again.
In the background looms the Depression, but it is not hopeless and stifling. The nice girl comes through and even the nice guy is granted at least a fling at happiness.
The first-rate ensemble cast, under director Elina de Santos and artistic director Marilyn Fox, proves that some of the most enjoyable productions in town are often found at under-publicized small venues.
"Awake and Sing" is one of Odets' best-known works, yet as a more time-bound "message" play, it feels less relevant than "Rocket."
It revolves around three generations of the Jewish Berger family, living and quarreling in a Bronx tenement during the depth of the Depression.
The dominating figure is Bessie Berger, who keeps the family in line and bread on the table by running the lives of all others.
It's quite a job, what with passive husband Myron; Karl Marx-spouting grandfather Jacob; frustrated children, Hennie and Ralph; wealthy brother, Morty; and cynical boarder Moe Axelrod.
Presented at the handsome and comfortable International City Theatre in Long Beach, the play intertwines a deepening family crisis when the unwed Hennie gets pregnant, with political sparring between the idealistic grandfather and grandson on one hand, and the capitalistic Morty on the other.
As directed by the respected Simon Levy, the male roles come off much stronger, especially the portrayals of grandfather Jacob by veteran Joseph Ruskin and the boarder and wounded war vet Moe by Tom Astor.
In the central role of Bessie Berger, Jacqueline Schultz, a capable actress, is just too blonde, too tall and too youthful-looking to pass as the archetypical, harassed Jewish matriarch. Paige Handler struggles with the play's least defined character as daughter Hennie.
A pleasant surprise in the small role of supernebbish immigrant Sam Feinschreiber is Sasha Kaminsky in his American debut.
Born in Kiev, then immigrating to Tel Aviv, the 33-year-old Kaminsky has won a slew of stage and film awards as a Russian, and then Hebrew- and Yiddish-speaking actor, and is now launching his career in English.
"Awake and Sing" continues through July 11 in Long Beach, call (562) 436-4610. "Rocket to the Moon" plays through Aug. 1 in Venice, call (310) 822-8392. Performances for both plays run Thursday-Sunday.