The many faces of despair

Awake & Sing

Every generation rediscovers Clifford Odets. Between those times, he's dismissed as an agitprop melodramatist who gave voice to the political unrest of the 1930s. The newest revival of his masterwork "Awake and Sing," at Broadway's Belasco, the theater that housed the original production 70 years ago, honors the playwright's creative genius, and fulfills the audience's hopes for a memorable theatrical event.

Under the era-specific direction of Bartlett Sher, this production melds together one of this season's most talented ensemble casts, notably Zoe Wanamaker as the fever-pitched, worrying matriarch of a struggling Bronx tenement family that also includes Ben Gazzara as her weary, capitalist-hating father; Lauren Ambrose as her defeated, dream-robbed daughter; and Mark Ruffalo as their no-nonsense war-veteran boarder. But it is Pablo Schreiber, as the youthful, still-naive son, and the principal voice of the playwright, who shines brightest, finding the right balance between optimism and despair.

And despair is the real subject of this great work. As he did in "Golden Boy," Odets embroiders a multidimensional story of lives ebbing, promises unkept, and the ways people make it through - or don't. Too often, this powerful message of the many faces of despair gets lost in the details of the period when the play is set. Forget when the gun was made; concentrate on the bullet.

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