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A CurtainUp Review
Waiting For Lefty
The Blue Lights Theater Company and director Joanne Woodward have givenClifford Odets' passionate labor play, Waiting For Lefty new life at the Classic Stage Theater. While its been 62 years since the theater goers hailed it as the first important labor play, Miss Woodward has turned it into a riveting experience with some interesting new touches. These include the addition of a prologue, (not in the original text), during which cast members sing such union movement and the depression era songs as "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?". . . Joe Hill and "I'm Sticking with the Union." This songfest, enhanced by the actors accompanying themselves with a banjo, a couple of guitars and a harmonica, does its work of giving the audience the flavor of the era and paving the way for the drama to follow. It was especially affecting for some of the older people in the audience who joined in with the cast.
The story takes place in a meeting hall in 1935 New York City where the delegates for a taxi driver's union tensely debate whether to authorize a strike by their membership, something their leaders definitely do not want to happen. The denouement evolves through a series of flashback episodes dramatizing what brought the various delegates to this time and place in their lives. For example we see how Joe, (PJ Brown), became one of the most vocal advocates at the meeting. Originally afraid to jeopardize the little money he's able to earn --about $8.00 dollars a week- -he's been shamed by his wife, Edna (played by Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei), into taking a stand. His transformation from a pitiful loser to angry man with a cause, works not because he believes he can win, but because he realizes he has nothing left to lose. Edna's resolve is also born of desperation and the humiliation of having her furniture repossessed.
As part of Ms. Woodward's previously mentioned new touches, we see several actors play dual roles. In Ms. Tomei's case this includes a second and entertaining part as a secretary in an episode about a young actor. In this scene which adds a a welcome injection of humor, she advises the actor (Alex Draper) who's come to a producer's office for a job. These bits of wisdom eventually and amusingly turn into a political diatribe.
The long and all-inclusive reach of poverty and want pervades every episode. A once successful doctor, (Peter Jacobson) lost his job because he's Jewish. An added non-verbal layer is added by the casting of black actors as Sid (Wood Harris), Florrie ( Lisa Renee Pitts) and Sid (Scott Whitehurst). Harris is, the embodiment of the frustration of a man who knows he's going nowhere and Lisa Renee' Pitts is convincing as a woman who fights to hold onto her dreams, even as they disappear in front of her.
The character of Agate, (Robert Hogan) doesn't show up until last fifteen minutes of the play the play. However, he, galvanizes the evening with a stirring speech about the importance of sticking together and fighting for the rights of workers.
Michael Schweikardt's set, or rather lack thereof--two movable stools and a few carry-on props on a bare theater-in-the-round style stage-- gives, this production a nice feeling of intimacy. This is enhanced by having the actors sit in the audience when not on stage. The authenticity is further underscored by the 30's slang that peppers the dialogue. Laurie Churba's costumes, many with tiny rips and threads unraveling, further capture the bleakness of the era and the despair of the characters.
At the opening performance we attended we sat next to Joanne Woodward. During the curtain calls she applauded the actors like a proud parent. While some may feel that the play's ardent message worked best when it was daring and most apt, we applaud Ms. Woodward for bringing back this story about the power of unity, the need for something or someone to bring things together as provided by the unseen, but ever-present Lefty.
Editor's note: When Waiting For Lefty was first produced Clifford Odets played the doctor and Elia Kazan was Agate Keller. Both Odets and Kazan figured importantly in the recent new (and short-lived) play, Names which foreshadowed both Odets' and Kazan's famous, or rather infamous, naming of names during another bleak episode in our country's history, the House Un-American Activities committee's (HUAC) investigation of Communists in government and Hollywood. e.s.
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