You keep waiting for the curtain to rise on "Awake and Sing" at the Actors Forum Theatre, but it never does. Instead you watch Clifford Odets' struggling Bronx family through a gauzy, semi-transparent scrim--an experience akin to watching quarrelsome neighbors through a screen door.
French director Rene Migliaccio's expressionistic design also transfers this very realistic, 1935 Depression saga to a dreamlike setting of bare, gray walls that suggest a padded cell. These highly stylized features are initially infuriating because they seem to distance you from the otherwise naturalistic acting.
As the show progresses, however, with the actors deliberately emoting like banshees in some cases, these stylized devices enable you to see the play anew, without clutter and from a purifying distance. The Bergers, Odets' unhappy Jewish family, are seen here as quintessential fish in a bowl.
This is a good time for Odets' fans. The playwright's "Waiting for Lefty" (also from 1935) is receiving a fully realistic staging across town at the Company of Angels, and the two productions are a rare opportunity to view an important playwright from different perspectives.
Even when the scenery chewing in "Awake and Sing" is outrageous and funny, the result is arresting. Prominent here are Steven Rosenbaum's coiled histrionics as the young son (a role created by John Garfield in the 1935 Group Theater production) and Anthony Gioia and Lisa Zebro in a Valentino-like seduction scene that pulls out all the stops and, remarkably, works.
As the smoldering, sultry daughter, Zebro almost walks off with the show. Her presence is palpable merely smoking drearily in a chair and saying nothing.
Among the nine-member cast, Gioia bristles as the love-smitten boarder. Larry Turks' slavish in-law and Archie Lang's Caruso-playing grandfather add pen-and-ink detail. The production's serious misstep is Audrey Marlyn as the mother figure. Her scratchy voice and snarling demeanor are tiresome and unrelenting.
At 3365 1/2 Cahuenga Blvd. West, Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 7 p.m., through July 9. Tickets: $10-$12.50; (213) 466-1767.
Another New York family, an unsavory Italian household in contemporary Brooklyn, populates playwright Dennis Manuel's "Pops" at the Richmond Shepard Theatre. The is dirty-undershirt drama, salvaged by a son's quest for his father.
The unredeeming title character is every woman's nightmare, complete with a tattoo, hairy arms, a volatile temper. And Eddie Zammit as the entitled Pops Vitelli delivers a furious, scabrous performance. Director Gary Blumsack stages a sexual abuse scene, central to the point of the play, that is notable for its ugly veracity.
The human squalor is offset by the decency of Pops' common-law wife (Jean Sagal), his endearing mother (a feisty Eda Reiss Merin), his loyal buddy (Greg Mullavey), and, most important, his young adult, long missing son (Sandor Black, whose tremulous and sensitive performance is the show's ultimate strength).
Vibrant acting here redeems to a measurable degree a predictable and surly play, which is further hampered by a flavorless and skimpy apartment room set.
At 6478 Santa Monica Blvd., Wednesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., through July 23. Tickets: $12.50-$15; (213) 466-1767.
'Politics of the Heart'
The Itchey Foot's potential as a downtown cabaret theater is evident in its musical production, "Politics of the Heart," which is a winsome summer valentine.
Subtitled "Recent Musical Findings Regarding Modern Love," the show is a homage to love created and performed by Ed Munter, who cleverly and literally animates his songs with live sketches of hearts that materialize in assorted states of bliss and captivity.
Guitarist-songwriter Munter, fronting his local band Izeneers (eyes and ears), is a down-home troubadour, effortlessly charting the faces of love on guitar, sketch pad and easel, harmonica and, humorously, over the phone.
Under Bryan Rasmussen's blithesome direction, Munter and his two musicians (guitarist Larry Giannecchini and bassist Jay Mueller) conjure a pointed spell that never slips into sentimentality or mere balladeering. The most genuine touch in the intermissionless evening, though, is Munter's witty dexterity with his drawings.
At 801 W. Temple St., Wednesdays only, 8:30 p.m., indefinitely. Tickets: $8; (213) 680-0007.
The stage is a movie house about to be torn down, where motley characters are in their seats waiting for the last matinee to unreel.
The unseen, mysterious projectionist (God? The Reaper?) never does start the movie. A quarrelsome patron, an old man, dies and is left sprawled between the seats. A bag lady, a kid, a bartender and an usher act weird. The central character, a troubled ambulance driver (Douglas Van Leuven), tries to make sense of it all and goes off to find his destiny.
Beware of murky, ambitious plays that take place in movie theaters. "Matinee" at the 2nd Stage is incomprehensible.