This is the season for iconic Jewish plays on stage throughout the Washington DC area. In how many cities can you see, Yentl, Fiddler on the Roof, and Awake and Sing all in a one month window? (Our Yentl closes Sunday with two final performances after taking Friday and Saturday off for Yom Kippur — and Fiddler began rehearsals this week, with our own Yentl , Shayna Blass, in the Arena Stage cast!) Still, in Fiddler and Awake and Sing, we’re talking about standard bearers for the American theater writ-large. The Jewish experience, we can all agree, has been accepted to speak for the larger American experience—or certainly a part of it, right? These works works aren’t confined to a ghetto of specialized, ethnic programming.
And yet, at last night’s talk-back at Olney Theatre, the final question (coming from someone very close to our theater company, no less) was posed in a candid way: “Isn’t this more of a New York story, and much less an American story?” There was some push-back from director Serge Seiden on stage, joining about 3/4ths of the cast. It provided an opportunity for us to contemplate; can the singular, ethnic experience be meant to represent the larger nation’s experience? Our questioner didn’t see his own California family in Odets’ New York Jews. He felt an outsider to what was happening on stage. We’ve all heard stories (courtesy of Alisa Solomon’s remarkable cultural history of Fiddler on The Roof, “Wonder of Wonders”) of how Fiddler has played just as convincingly in Japan as it has in Manhattan (“Tradition” rings resoundingly in the Far East, as do the threats to that cultural tradition.) But if you don’t recognize yourself, or your family, on stage, does that confine the universality and applicability of the portrait?
The great service of Seiden’s Olney Theatre production seems to be the way it speaks so powerfully, emotionally, and convincingly to three different generations at the same time. How alive those young people felt last night! At least to me. Odets language, electric for its time, popped off the stage so vividly and musically, shiny and new once again. And the political divisions in the house-hold, with calls for strike from the elder statesman Jacob meeting up with calls for striking back at the rib cages of the agitating workers by big businessman brother Uncle Morty brought home that truism; that the most political entity remains the family, teeming, diverse and dynamic.
There’s so much to say about this show, and I hope we read some detailed comments over this holiday weekend. We’ve been reading about The Group Theatre. We’ve just read Odets’ Waiting For Lefty which sets the stage for this fuller, richer full-length treatment. And I entreat everyone to check out the Olney Theatre blogsite for this production; a potpourri of great background context and information that helps give veracity and depth to the vivid production.
One point I do want to share — in encouraging our entire Theater J community to go out and see this great local production of Awake and Sing — is to mentally bookmark this play’s most dramatic event — the suicidal despair of Jacob Berger (played so beautifully by our dear friend—and most recent Dr. Frued in Seiden’s production of Freud’s Last Session, Rick Foucheux), a despair emerging from political disappointment and a self-incriminating realization that he’s as much to blame for the weakness of the movement—and the political weakness within his own struggling family. This is a despair we’re going to experience early in Tony Kushner’s new play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide To Capitalism and Socialism With a Key To The Scriptures. In so many ways, Kushner has written an homage to the family plays of Odets, and Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill. But I never realized, until last night, how Kushner’s septuagenarian, Gus Marcantonio, is a direct descendant of Odets’ Jacob. They are similarly cut characters on a trajectory of ideological downfall. Different from Gus, Jacob is a failed revolutionary who talked big “but instead drank a glass tea.” He talked about revolution but didn’t do enough about it. Gus, we’ll find out, is quite different; he’s an Italian-American retired longshoreman and lifetime member of the Communist Party USA, on the frontlines of the worker’s revolution, American-style. And he sees in his own battles won and in his own negotiated victories for the Guaranteed Income, for example, the seeds to his own movement’s undoing, in the midst of a larger attack from the forces of Capitalism challenging his Socialist values.
Meanwhile, Awake and Sing runs out in Olney through October 19 (only two more weeks!).