Written by Clifford Odets
Directed by John DeSotelle
Reviewed By Sander Gusinow
Theatre Reviews Limited
It is a shock to the senses, entering the turn-of-the-century transformation underway at John DeSotelle Studio. A wooden jungle of beams and antique furniture consumes the black box space, a testament to the low-budget ingenuity of set designer Brian McManimon. The 1920’s tenement replica is immersive to say the least, a clever imagining of Clifford Odets’ masterpiece about a poor Jewish family dealing with their lovesick children and fiery Marxist grandfather in the wake of World War II. Imagine my surprise when, like the sounding of funeral bells, a ‘please forgive us’ curtain speech is delivered by director John DeSotelle himself.
It is painful irony: a ten-minute curtain speech that assures you the play won’t take as long as it seems. DeSotelle presents his intentions of the play, slamming Lincoln Center’s production in 2006, and sermonizing about the authenticity of his set, and the proper way to enjoy his production (for example – surprise, surprise) peering through the skeletal walls the characters alone in their rooms) Then it began, and the curtain speech proved a honest harbinger.
The show stumbles into every pit trap associated with period revival. The actors are rigid and austere. The witty charm of Odets’ classic is entirely smothered; every scene, the performers teeter on the brink of tears, unable to excavate Odets’ nuanced brilliance. Sullen looks, yelling, and incessant table-pounding but no comedy or joy in sight. It is more akin to watching a Thanksgiving gone south than one of the best family dramas in American history.
What is most lamentable is the cast tries so very hard. There’s no shortage of energy, it’s a wonder they kept the claws out for two and a half hours, rarely going offstage due to the invisible walls aesthetic. (and by the way, watching the characters mope in their bedrooms after fights wears out its welcome rather quickly) Annie R. Such, who plays the enceinte daughter Hennie, is the brightest element of the production. Ms. Such has a masterful command of the unspoken. Her Hennie is the picture of bridled passion and crippling restraint. Even when she does boil over it’s a long time in the coming, visibly building up in her like a nuclear reactor. A Hebrew Blanche DuBois, if you will.
But she can’t salvage the production. It’s a kerfuffle; playing fast and loose with the script in a way that hamstrings its most endearing qualities. An interesting side note; the Jewish food they served after the show was mouth watering. I feel like a monster for devouring their kenish.