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11-30-10 Review by Libby Hansen for KC Metropolis; Kansas City’s online performing arts journal.

“Dense and Domineering ‘Awake and Sing!'”

With powerful performances all around, the MET tackled Clifford Odets’ “Awake and Sing” with articulated verve and deep understanding of the complex, riveting story.

Dense and domineering "Awake and Sing"

The Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre’s production of Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing was riveting. Though a period piece set in the 1930’s, the themes of economic turmoil and familial politics are as pertinent today as when it was written. The play, an early example of Jewish-American drama, is considered one of Odets’ greatest plays. Karen Paisley directed a stellar cast through the dense script in a demanding performance.

The action takes place in the Berger family’s Bronx apartment in the midst of the Great Depression. It’s a typical lower middle-class household of the era, worn but clean. Each character is yearning to find their fulfillment of the American Dream. The family is controlled and manipulated by Bessie, mother of Hennie and Ralph. Her husband, Myron, takes a back seat to her domineering nature and her father, Jake, is likewise subjected to her acid tongue when he tries to stand up for his grandchildren’s future while espousing Marxist ideals. Moe Axelrod, a wounded veteran of World War I, is a friend of the family and boarder, but also a gambler and has his own ax to grind. No one is spared Bessie’s tirades and belittlement, with the exception of her brother Morty, a rich garment manufacturer, and Sam Feinschreiber, a recent Russian immigrant who has his sights set on Hennie. Even the apartment janitor, Schlosser, bears the brunt of her pointed anger.

The plot centers on Bessie’s obsessive desire for what she thinks is best for her family, but doesn’t see their feelings as having anything to do with it. Jeanne Averill played Bessie almost to the point of caricature, though unfortunately people as caustically manipulative as Bessie exist. Robert Gibby Brand, as Myron, played the only calm character because he seemed oblivious to the consternation surrounding him. Brand had the few true laugh lines in an otherwise heavy play and delivered them with the subtly of one not trying to be funny. Ralph, played with a ruptured innocence by Sam Cordes, fretted over a girl and his position at work. He’s young and ambitious, but tethered by family alliance and chomping at the bit. Hennie is likewise tethered, dreaming of a rich man to whisk her away, but dallying with boyfriends in the meantime. Natalie Liccardello played the beauty only a few bitter years from turning into her mother.

Doogin Brown and Natalie LiccardelloJake and Moe are the only people who attempt to stand up to Bessie’s conniving. Richard Alan Nichols played Jake as an immigrant who works hard for his family, yet regrets that their lives are still a constant struggle and sees capitalism as the problem. Nichols was a strong player with tremendous emotional undercurrents. Doogin Brown’s Moe was similarly emotionally subtle, yet defensive and harsh.

The remaining characters find themselves drawn into Bessie’s schemes. Coleman Crenshaw played Sam, a hard-working immigrant used as scapegoat. Crenshaw had a spot-on accent and radiated nervous insecurity that befits a man who was unsure of his wife’s love. Uncle Morty, played by Greg Butell, was drawn in willingly, a wily businessman who unconsciously flaunted his wealth while complaining of the hard times in front of his family. Morty and Bessie are two peas in a pod, demanding respect, yet giving none, shouting down others’ opinions and denying anyone else to disagree with their plans.

In an otherwise powerful performance, the accents were a little off. Alan Tilson’s Schlosser had thickly accented lines are brief but believable, as are Crenshaw’s. Most of the younger cast had passable Bronx vernacular, though Brown alternatively chewed and spat his words. However, it seemed that Bessie spent more time in the old country than her father Jake. Averill’s accent choice heavily vacillated between Eastern European and strident shrieking. Brand, Nichols, and Butell were more light-handed with sprinklings of Yiddish.

Costume design by Atif Rome affirmed the characters’ social status and the times. I enjoyed the evolution of Hennie’s costume changes. The set pulled together well, with beams designating rooms that simultaneously defined the open space of the stage and captured the cramped space of the apartment. The sound design was fitting until the climactic moment following Jake’s ultimate decision. The incidental music at that moment, especially after the dramatic run-up, was distracting.

The Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre’s production was outstanding and the actors tackled this complex story with articulate energy and verve.

Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre

Awake and Sing

Runs through December 5
(Reviewed November 21, 2010)
3614 Main Street, Kansas City, MO
For tickets call 816-569-3226 or online at

Cover photo: Jeanne Averill as Bessie


By Grace Suh for The Pitch

I heard today from a friend whose cousin, a funny, bright man with four daughters, went missing last week. Fortunately, the police found him before he could commit the suicide he was contemplating. Despite two jobs, he had sunk deep into debt, a fact he had hidden even from his wife.

Doogin Brown and Natalie Liccardello face hard times in Awake and Sing!

Bob Paisley
Doogin Brown and Natalie Liccardello face hard times in Awake and Sing!

Awake and Sing!
Through December 5 at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre 3614 Main, 816-569-3226,


He was on my mind as I thought aboutClifford Odets‘ Awake and Sing! playing at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre. Born into a poor, Jewish immigrant family and raised in the Bronx, Odets was a young man by the time of the Great Depression, when he wrote his poetic, passionate masterpiece, Awake and Sing! The play held up a mirror to that moment: families evicted onto sidewalks, workers struggling ineffectually for fair treatment, and an ever-widening gap between the obscenely rich and the desperately poor — scenes too familiar in our own moment.

As the play opens, three generations of the Berger family live in a cramped Bronx apartment: Bessie and Myron; their grown children, Hennie and Ralph; and Bessie’s father, Jacob. Hennie is beautiful, proud and cynical beyond her years. Ralph yearns to make something of his life, but his obligation to contribute to the family’s keep traps him in a dead-end, low- paying job. Myron is ineffectual and charming, and Jacob is devoted equally to communist ideology and recordings of Caruso — both promises of paradise. So it is up to Bessie — vigorous, shrewd, shrewish — to keep the wolves from the door.

Jeanne Averill delves deeply into the role of Bessie, embodying her as a formidable force of nature while deftly unfolding her complexities and insecurities. Bessie’s imperious manner is belied by the awkward, hip-heavy walk that Averill gives her. There’s a delicacy to the way Averill holds herself — feet braced for a brawl, hands clasped like a lady — that speaks volumes about how Bessie wishes her life had been different. Despite her manipulations, belligerence and hypocrisy, Bessie is not a monster but a mother who wants her children’s lives to be better.

When Hennie gets pregnant, Bessie schemes to marry her off to Sam Feinschreiber, an unwitting immigrant whose devotion blinds him to the truth. Coleman Crenshaw paints an affecting portrait of Sam as an innocent bystander whose heartbreak may be the play’s one true moment of unmediated anguish.

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by Robert Trussell for the KC Star

Revisiting a well-made play from a distant era is often an eye-opening experience, and so it is with the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre’s well-acted production of “Awake and Sing!”

Staged on Broadway at the height of the Great Depression, this three-act family drama by Clifford Odets was viewed as a contemporary piece by 1935 audiences. It reverberated with the harsh realities of a bleak economy and it foreshadowed the coming war.

Set entirely in a Bronx apartment occupied by three generations of the Berger family, the narrative reflects the Jewish immigrant experience and generational conflicts wrapped around an affecting love story. Odets was, of course, a committed lefty, and the play flirts with agitprop in its unambiguous condemnation of raw capitalism and Americans’ obsession with money.

Director Karen Paisley has gathered together a prodigiously talented group of actors that seems well suited to Odets’ ensemble piece. But the cast was never fully in sync on opening night and struggled to find a consistent rhythm. A couple of blown sound cues didn’t help. Nonetheless, many of those on stage registered impressive work individually and at times electrifying exchanges lit up the house.

Jeanne Averill is a powerhouse as Bessie Berger, the ultimate dominating mother who wants what’s best for her kids even if it kills them. But Odets’ portrait is fundamentally sympathetic even when Bessie is at her most maddening. Averill gives us a memorable, multi-level performance.

Her passive husband, Myron, is nicely drawn by Robert Gibby Brand in an unobtrusive turn. Their son Ralph, played explosively by Sam Cordes, is frustrated by the lack of opportunity, not to mention the lack of money, he has endured his entire life.

Their daughter Hennie (the earthy/elegant Natalie Licardello) has her own frustrations which are exacerbated when she reveals that she’s expecting a child. She won’t identify the father and Bessie forces her into a loveless marriage with Sam (Coleman Crenshaw), an immigrant who hears what he wants to hear, even when Hennie is brutally honest.

The family elder, Jacob, muses philosophically, preaches Marxism, listens to Caruso and pins all of his hopes for the future on young Ralph. Richard Alan Nichols’ performance is textured and powerful.

As the cynical boarder, Moe Axelrod, Doogin Brown is really too young to play the embittered World War I veteran who lost a leg the day before the armistice. But his reading of Moe, who loves Hennie from a close distance, is so affecting that his age becomes a minor issue. Brown’s a charismatic actor who draws our attention even in those moments where he appears to do nothing.

The play reflects to some degree Odets’ own experience as the son of Jewish immigrants, but in 2010 his script inevitably echoes Jewish stereotypes we’ve seen in 75 years of dramas, musicals and comedies. Most of the actors clear that hurdle, but Greg Butell’s performance as Uncle Morty, a dress manufacturer, is more attitude than character.

Paisley’s use of dramatic string music, unidentified in the program, in certain scenes is unnecessary, if not distracting. Her actors and the script are more than adequate to the task of communicating the story’s tragic elements.

But what’s remarkable about this show are the clear parallels between the Great Depression and our recession, which the experts have declared to be over. The desperate desire for financial security is universal, no matter what the politicians say. When people are confronted by inequality on a daily basis, they tend to get angry — then and now.

Odets ends his drama on a note of youthful optimism, but it rings false. What you remember is the righteous anger. That’s what fuels this play.

“Awake and Sing!” runs through Dec. 5 at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre. Call 816-569-3226 or go to

To reach Robert Trussell, theater critic, call 816-234-4765 or send email to

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