For play-reading club, no script is sacred

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Playwright Clifford Odets in 1938. Wikimedia Commons

Most of the discussion in the Temple Emanuel play-reading group about the characters in Clifford Odets’ Depression era “Awake and Sing!” revolved around whether they were believably Jewish.

One of the nine at the reading in November couldn’t believe that any Jewish girl in 1930s Bronx would be so irresponsible as to have a child out of wedlock. Most everyone agreed.


But what really convinced the group that the playwright didn’t know what he was talking about was that the family’s big meal for the week was a Sunday dinner — not a Shabbat dinner.

“Inviting people to Sunday dinner —how goyishe can you get?” someone said.

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For years, a group of members of the Reform congregation in Kensington, and a few non-members, have gathered over snacks and coffee to discuss — and then read — plays both classic and modern.

The group is led by Stephen and Joette Alkire, both retired. Though Stephen had no prior performance experience, Joette is a veteran of community theater.


“I could sing before I could talk, I could dance before I could walk, I was just that kind of person, you know?” she said.

Play reading is a way to continue exercising her love of theater, even as age has kept her from being on stage as much as she used to.

Lee Epstein led the discussion about the play. A former economist at the Department of Justice, Epstein now works as a book dealer, selling volumes on law and legal history to academic law libraries.

Epstein said he had had a hard time locating a copy of any of Odets’ plays in the local library system, an indication of the playwright’s unjust omission from the 20th century canon.

He seemed to be alone in this feeling. Most of the group, including his wife, Sandy, said they didn’t like “Awake and Sing!” much.

“It wasn’t very uplifting,” one woman said.

Then they told stories of their own growing up in New York to show what real Jewish characters would have been like.

Epstein didn’t mind, since it goes both ways. The week before, they did “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” which he didn’t particularly enjoy.

“The conversation of the group is always invigorating,” he said.

“Awake and Sing!” uses the N-word several times, and there was a spirited debate about what to say when it came up. Shvartze, Yiddish for black, was voted down and the group settled on saying “blank.”

“I love the group,” said Sandy Epstein, who read the part of Hennie, the rebellious young daughter. “Every single play, no matter whether it’s a comedy or a tragedy or drama, or whatever it is or whoever wrote it, there’s something in it about relationships, how we connect or not. That’s what always interests me.”

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