The wait is over, and Theatre West’s revival of Clifford Odets’ Waiting For Lefty is the most important play currently being presented in L.A., and possibly the best production of 2010. Odets’ one-act play, originally presented by the fabled Group Theatre on Broadway in 1935, is one of the classics of the Depression era movement of proletarian drama, and perhaps the most successful of that entire noble genre in the U.S.
Lefty unfolds during a raucous meeting run by a corrupt company union of taxi drivers who have gathered to consider whether or not to go out on strike. Throughout the drama militants clash with the union prez (appropriately named Harry Fatt and creepily portrayed by the beefy Anthony Gruppuso) and goons as they wait for the leader of the cabbies’ most radical, left-leaning faction – the aptly named “Lefty” — to arrive at the meeting and speak.
In Lefty, Odets captured the angst of that age of economic anxiety, when unemployment soared to 25% (or more) of the work force, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal programs tried to ameliorate the harshest conditions workers confronted, with social safety net and pro-labor initiatives and programs. (Among them was the Federal Theatre Project, which not only gave lots of actors, stagehands, directors, et al, jobs, but produced some socially conscious plays such as The Living Newspaper, both on Broadway and throughout the country.)
Much more importantly than merely reflecting FDR’s New Deal reforms Lefty captured the zeitgeist of labor militancy that swept America during the Depression. While Roosevelt’s concessions tried to avert a revolution, labor militants sought to promote one. During the Depression unionization jumped by about 300%, as workers fought the bosses, their armed goons (in and out of uniform – remember that first and foremost, a cop is a potential strikebreaker and union buster), and the powers that be with radical tactics such as sit down strikes, wherein workers not only went out on strike but even took over factories. Some of this is glimpsed in archival footage in Michael Moore’s 2009 doc Capitalism, A Love Story.
It’s ironic, even tragic, that the Depression era 1930s milieu of Lefty is still resonant with today’s audiences, as unemployment, foreclosures, Wall Street disasters, etc., continue to ravage the land and the working class. But while contemporary theatergoers can relate to the miserable conditions, cutbacks and hard times facing their 1935 counterparts, what’s missing now is the class warfare militancy that made Lefty not only a hit on the New York stage, but in theatres around the country, where it was widely produced during the Depression. I recently watched Capitalism again on cable (I hadn’t seen it since attending a private screening with Moore last September), and it was more obvious to me on second viewing that what Moore was trying to spark, and hoping for, was a revival of the labor militancy that shook America during the last Great Depression, such as the Flint sit down strike in his hometown that established the United Auto Workers as a powerful force in guaranteeing workers some measure of human decency and progress.
Odets’ proletarian drama builds towards a climax as the workers wait for Lefty and then come to the realization, like latter day Hamlets, that he/she who hesitates is lost. The rousing tour-de-force ending is one of the greatest and most celebrated grand finales in all theatre history, as the militant ethos spreads from the stage to the seats, as the denouement counts to great measure on audience participation. For revolution means participation by the people as the protagonists who, no longer waiting for messiahs, realize that they, and they alone, can make their collective and individual destinies, and must do so by taking matters into their own hands.
The audience participation aspect of Lefty is superb and clever – for once, it’s the spectators who must perform with panache, and, as that old cliché goes, “once more with gusto.” But it is also the genius of Odets, that Shakespeare of proletarian drama, to cinematically breakup the union hall meeting with flashbacks that tell the cabbies’ back-stories, and how they came to drive their 20th century chariots through the mean streets of Gotham — because they weren’t born behind the wheel.
Donald Moore plays Miller, a skilled lab assistant at a defense plant, who is sacked after he declines a raise in order to work on poison gas, in a back-story redolent with antiwar sentiment. Elizabeth Bradshaw movingly portrays Dr. Benjamin, a Jewish female doctor who is laid off at a hospital (sound familiar amidst our own age of lay offs, cutbacks and healthcare crisis?).
In one of the most poignant and well-acted vignettes, Joe Mitchell (Paul Gunning) is a working Joe whose meager wages and tips aren’t enough to pay the bills, and his wife Edna (Kristin Wiegand), desperate to support their two children, threatens to leave Joe for another man – or possibly even to become a prostitute. Yet, they are lucky when compared to Florrie (Heather Alyse Becker) and Sid (Adam Conger), a couple too poor to find a private place to have sex, let alone to get married, thanks to the Depression’s grinding poverty.
Edna tells her hack husband: “For five years I laid awake I laid awake at night listening to my heart pound. For god’s sake, do something, Joe, get wise. Maybe get your buddies together, maybe go on strike for better money. Poppa did it during the war and they won out…” His wife’s threats propel Joe to finally take a stand.
And in a sequence that seems purged from the Grove Press edition of Odets plays (including Golden Boy and Awake and Sing! – which I saw a great Broadway revival of a few years ago, starring Ben Gazzara) a theatrical agent’s secretary (Sandra Tucker) surreptitiously reads from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ 1848 Communist Manifesto and slips a buck to the down at his heels actor Philips (Jason Galloway) playing the role most thespians spend more time playing than any other part: trying to get an acting job.
The taxi drivers’ redemption comes in the form of labor militancy, if not a revolutionary consciousness, that they must unite, organize and fight for their rights – by any means necessary. Interestingly, and I don’t know if Odets intended this, it is women – Edna, the pro-Communist Secretary – who seem to impart this wisdom and fighting spirit to the mostly male workers, and not the eponymous Lefty himself, the most radical of the organizers.
Charlie Mount’s deftly directed production of Waiting For Lefty is a period piece set during the Depression (the last one, not the current one), and is part of Theatre West’s Chestnuts program which, according to the Foot Lights playbill, is “dedicated to quality revivals of great plays.” I attended the premiere with a hot date, writer Norma Barzman (The Red and the Blacklist, The End of Romance), who originally saw Lefty on Broadway in 1935 when she was 15, and still remembers being swept up in the emotion of the Group Theatre’s revolutionary ending. Actress Betty Garrett, who is on Theatre West’s board, was also at the revival’s debut, and commented that it brought her back in time to her teenage years, when she originally saw Lefty during the 1930s, and how it helped open up a whole new world to the once-sheltered actress-to-be.
I couldn’t help but wonder, however, if this production of Lefty, as stellar as it is, would have been even better and would have benefited if, instead of being a period piece, it was set in contemporary times. I mean, in the 1950s William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was convincingly and wildly successfully transmogrified into the then modern dress, contemporary West Side Story, and so on. Perhaps placing Lefty in our time period might startle today’s audiences — while readily recognizing the miserable economic conditions, but might regard unionization and militancy as science fiction.
My own play The Waiters – which derives its title, in part, from Waiting For Lefty – attempts to update Odets’ classic in a 21st century setting and to revive proletarian drama, and is about a revolution by disabled workers who take over a restaurant run by tyrannical bosses. In it, I extend Odets’ audience participation aesthetic in Lefty. In any case, what are you waiting for? Don’t miss the flawless ensemble acting in the most important play in L.A., Theatre West’s Waiting For Lefty, and the next time you’re oppressed, remember, don’t wait: STRIKE!!!
Waiting For Lefty is being performed on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through October 10 at Theatre West, 333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, L.A., CA 90068. For more info: (323)851-4839; www.theatrewest.org.
Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based freelance writer and author of Progressive Hollywood.