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Jewish Journal

Wake Up to a Classic

by Tom Tugend

December 27, 2001 | 7:00 pm

Walter Matthau as Moe Axelrod and Felicia Farr as Hennie in "Awake and Sing."

Walter Matthau as Moe Axelrod and Felicia Farr as Hennie in "Awake and Sing."

During the Depression years of the 1930s, Clifford Odets was one of the lead dramatists in the theater of social protest. In one fruitful year alone, the legendary Group Theatre premiered three of his plays, "Waiting for Lefty," "Awake and Sing" and "Paradise Lost."

"Awake and Sing," in its 1972 television version, has been chosen by KCET as the lead play in its "Classic Drama Encores" and will air Wednesday, Jan. 2, from 9 p.m.-11 p.m.

The play chronicles the many travails and rare triumphs of the three-generation Berger family, crammed together in a South Bronx tenement.

Dominating the household, in the absence of any effective male figures, is Bessie Berger (Ruth Storey), who makes life miserable for her son Ralph (Robert Lipton) and daughter Hennie (Felicia Farr). Walter Matthau, in a straight dramatic role, plays the cynical boarder Moe Axelrod, whose leg was shot off in the next to last day of World War I. Ron Rifkin has a brief stint as Hennie's nebbish husband.

The most appealing performance is by the great Yiddish actor Leo Fuchs, as the grandfather, who reads the daily Communist paper "Frayhayt" and can reel off Marxist doctrine and biblical verse ("Awake and sing, he that dwelleth in the dust") with equal soulfulness.

Regretfully, the play has not aged gracefully. Many of the situations now appear contrived, and the constant use of 1930s slang ("go lay an egg," "you should live so long" and "go fight city hall") further dates the action.

The following week, on Jan. 9, "Classic Drama Encores" will continue with Eugene O'Neill's "A Moon for the Misbegotten," with Jason Robards, Jr. and Colleen Dewhurst.

For more information on "Classic Drama Encores," visit www.kcet.org .

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