US screen and stage star Stockard Channingreturned to the London stage last Thursday 6 September 2007 (previews from 31 August) to star in the Almeida Theatre revival of Clifford Odets’ 1935 American classic Awake and Sing!, directed by artistic director Michael Attenborough (See 1st Night Photos, 7 Sep 2007).
Channing plays Bessie Berger, the strong-willed matriarch of a lower middle-class, three-generation Jewish family living in a Bronx apartment during the Great Depression. She’s joined in the ensemble cast by Jodie Whittaker (recently seen with Peter O’Toole in the film Venus), Trevor Cooper, Paul Jesson, Nigel Lindsay, Ben Turner and John Rogan. The play’s limited season at the Almeida continues until 20 October 2007.
Stockard Channing is best known internationally for her screen work including, early in her career, playing Rizzo in the film of Grease and, more recently, Abigail Bartlet, wife of Martin Sheen’s US president in American TV series The West Wing. However, she started her career in the theatre and has continued to appear regularly on stage with numerous Broadway credits including A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, for which she won a Best Actress Tony Award. Her last major London stage role was in John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation (transferred from the Royal Court to the West End’s Comedy Theatre), which she also performed on Broadway and on screen (for which she was Oscar nominated).
While critics welcomed Stockard Channing’s London return, they disagreed as to whether she is perfectly cast or miscast as the domineering Jewish matriarch of Awake and Sing!. While some felt that the actress is too “manicured” and “well-dressed” to be plausible in the role, others decided that she used these traits to successfully work against type in a “sly” and “understated” performance. In supporting parts, Nigel Lindsay and Jodie Whittaker both made an impression with critics. Even if Odets’ political stance itself has dated, most deemed that Michael Attenborough’s revival shows the play itself off well. There was particular appreciation for Odets’ quirkily colloquial dialogue and its delivery.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) - “It is major treat in Michael Attenborough’s beautifully cast and joyously well acted ensemble production of Awake and Sing! to appreciate once more Stockard Channing’s sly, natural delivery of knock-out lines and her feline, graceful stage presence and command … The text retains its punch and swagger right through … Attenborough brings the whole of the playwright’s music to life; no need to ask, ‘Odets, where is thy sting?’ The optimism of radical change resides in Ben’s devotion to his old grandfather’s advice to ‘take the world in two hands and make it like new’. How moving it is to see that fine Irish actor John Rogan – now paralysed and confined to a wheelchair after a terrible accident in which he fell down a Tube escalator – gazing dewy-eyed into the distance, his head full of the soaring tenor sounds of Caruso … As in Chekhov, the humanity of failing makes for resonant theatrical success … a marvellous evening.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “Clifford Odets has had a raw deal in the British theatre. But Michael Attenborough's fine revival of his most famous play reminds us why Odets was such a good writer: he had the ability to interweave the domestic and the political in a way that influenced Arthur Miller but has largely disappeared from American drama today. Odets grips you by his authentic portrait of a Bronx Jewish family in the Depression era. Not, you might say, the happiest of families. But Odets believes in the capacity for change … Attenborough avoids lapsing into a stereotypical Jewish family drama, not least through the casting of Stockard Channing, the American president's wife in The West Wing, as Bessie. Although Channing looks too manicured to be entirely plausible as a woman who once slaved in a stocking factory, she captures perfectly Odets' complex attitude to this domestic tyrant … Yet, for all Bessie's unforgiveable actions, Channing makes you understand her rationale, which is that she has had to be father as well as mother. There is an outstanding performance from Nigel Lindsay as Moe, and good work from John Rogan as the sententious Jacob, Paul Jesson as the self-pitying Myron, and Jodie Whittaker as the rebellious daughter.”
Paul Taylor in the Independent - “The last time Stockard Channing played a major stage role in London it was as a guilty Upper East Side liberal in John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation. Here, near the opposite end of the social scale, she's terrific as she expertly twists our responses to Bessie, the diminutive, domineering Jewish matriarch of the Berger clan. This woman will stop at nothing to keep her family solvent and together … Channing manages to make you wince with laughter at Bessie's tragicomically unscrupulous drive and to flinch with compassion at the glimpses she gives of the personal sacrifices Bessie has had to make … Channing's Bessie unsentimentally conveys a shamed awareness that a more generous-spirited woman has atrophied within her … But then a feeling that the Depression has smothered the characters' better selves animates all the performances in this beautifully sustained ensemble production. The play is often very funny and the actors sling Odets' tangy, street-slangy, urban-poetic dialogue at one another with great bite and brio, and they let you hear that the hard-boiled lingo is largely a defence mechanism … This is a richly rewarding revival.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (three stars) –“Attenborough's neither authentic nor well-cast production, set in a cramped but too well-heeled apartment, makes it clear that the enduring appeal of Awake and Sing! has little to do with politics, but plenty with the mordant comedy of Jewish family life and the fine cut of its verbal comedy. Odets harks back to Chekhov and O'Casey in style and technique. He also records a cherishable lingo - the clever wisecracks, the cynical-ironic repartee, the odd syntax and sheer street poetry of period Jewish-Americans. This is a play which appeals to the ear, more than to any other body part … Bessie, whom a handsome, miscast Stockard Channing makes far too stylishly middle-class in manner - neither as Jewish nor as humorous as Odets can have intended, has a life mission. She plays the dominant, selflessly hard-working momma … The play's whispily insubstantial plot lines depend upon Jacob's insurance policy and this matriarch … There are, sadly, no serious conflicts … Paul Jesson as Bessie's ineffectual husband, Trevor Cooper's Uncle Morty and John Rogan never much sound or behave like Jewish-Americans. Odets' precious essence of authenticity is lost.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) – “Awake and Sing! – a title taken from Isaiah’s upbeat advice to those ‘who dwell in dust’ – is invigorating yet maddening. It deserves its finely acted revival at the Almeida, yet can seem as dated as Odets’ Waiting for Lefty, which famously ended with the cast chorusing ‘strike, strike, strike!’ at America’s workers … Stockard Channing has crossed the pond to play the Berger matriarch Bessie, and I initially felt she should be more obviously formidable. But the paradoxical strength of her performance is its understatement. Here, you feel, is a woman who has quietly, unshowily held together her family for years. Bessie is a monster … but she’s also as much a victim as her own victims … She’s a genuinely self-sacrificing mother with a sense of responsibility as powerful as it’s twisted … Odets’ compassion crosses the decades, along with an exhilarating quirkiness of observation and language.”
Julie Carpenter in the Daily Express (three stars) – “Tough cookies are Channing’s trademark. She is the scheming monster of the piece, marrying her pregnant daughter off to an unsuspecting immigrant and attempting to thwart her son’s romance with a woman she considers unsuitable … For her, it is all about maintaining an aura of respectability, but Channing’s skill lies in giving us flashes of the frightened kitten behind the proud lioness. Unfortunately, she is too poised and well-dressed to be truly believable as a woman on the edge of poverty, and while Odets’ work is considered a classic in America, there are more moving plays about the Depression. In fact, the Almeida’s creative director Michael Attenborough has only recently staged the more forceful Theodore Ward drama, Big White Fog, which follows the tragic plight of a black family during the period … This production benefits from first-class acting. Jodie Whittaker … is as brittle as a brandy snap as Hennie, and Nigel Lindsay plays the wisecracking Moe Axelrod with an almost gangster-like vibrancy. And thank goodness for the play’s zesty dialogue, which is shot through with Bronx colloquialisms. Taken together, they buoy up this production no end.”
- by Terri Paddock