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By LINDA BUCHWALD
When you take your seat at the National Asian American Theater Company's (NAATCO) production of Clifford Odets's Awake and Sing!, you may wonder if you'll have to serve dinner to the Berger family. There are two rows of seats on either side of the dining room and living room set, so the audience feels dropped in the middle of the action.
The play, about three generations of a lower-middle-class Jewish family living in the Bronx, takes place in 1933 and 1934, but as with most Odets plays, it still speaks to modern audiences. (There's been something of an Odets bonanza recently: Both "Golden Boy" and "The Big Knife" were revived on Broadway last season.) For Stephen Fried, who's directing NAATCO's revival, placing the audience up close underlines why the Depression-era show still feels relevant. "I think there's a challenge in doing justice to the world that the work came out of and also making the audience viscerally aware of the immediacy of the themes that are being discussed," he says. "So for me to put the audience right in the middle of the dynamics of this family made it much easier for an audience member to just be a part of those dynamics. I never wanted it to be something that we were looking at. I wanted it to be something that we were in the midst of."
Awake and Sing!, which officially opens on Wednesday at Walkerspace, hinges on the collisions of a family that's forced to be close-knit, whether they like it or not. "To have the audience in the living room, you feel what it's like to be living in cramped quarters like that, where Ralphie, [Bessie's adult son,] has to sleep on the couch. You experience how difficult that is to maneuver when people are walking all over the place," says Mia Katigbak, who plays matriarch Bessie Berger and is also the artistic producing director and co-founder of NAATCO.
Fried and scenic designer Anshuman Bhatia did serious research to make sure the set and props were as authentic as possible: For instance, the magazines on the table, the fruit bowl, and the couch are all Depression-era artifacts. But faithfulness to the period meant more than just finding the right furniture and making sure the crown molding looked authentic. There is a scene in which one character gives another a haircut. Not only are the clippers from the 1930s, but Bhatia also researched how a haircut was given in that period, learning that barbers would have put newspapers on the floor. In another scene, the super comes to collect the garbage, and Fried learned that they couldn't use garbage bags because they weren't invented until the '50s.
Katigbak says that by being true to the characters and the period, they are not "Asian-izing" the play, though moments can resonate in an interesting way by virtue of being performed by an Asian-American cast, such as when Myron, the family patriarch, says, "I'm not foreign born. I'm an American."
Katigbak says, "If there were Asian families in the '30s who were dealing with the same thing, they wouldn't be called Berger, but it's so relatable."
Fried adds, "NAATCO doing this play does a huge thing for Odets because I think Odets gets compartmentalized. I think people think of it as a lower tier than, say, Arthur Miller because they think of it as ethnically specific. I think a lot of people who see this production realize it's not just about a Jewish family. It's really about any family who doesn't feel at the center of a society."
Linda Buchwald tweets about theatre as @PataphysicalSci. She contributes to StageGrade and the theatre blog Pataphysical Science