Friday, September 17, 2010

Waiting for Lefty by Clifford Odets

By Joe Straw

 “I was astonished by its naiveté and its power…”*

“After a year of unemployment and long after the credit cards had been cancelled.  I found a job. I had been saved.  I cried so hard, I couldn’t stop.

“But, I was three months behind in rent and hungry, very hungry. A hunger so deep and desperate it made concentrating extremely hard.   And all I could think about was holding onto the job. 

“At lunch, in the snack bar, three dollars for a cup of soup and I’m looking at two dollars and thirty cents in change in my hand that was, hypothetically, to last until my first paycheck.  I was so lightheaded my employer took my behavior as incompetence and I was fired before the week was up. 

“My wife cried so hard I thought she was never going to stop.” 

In the play, Waiting for Lefty by Clifford Odets, the fog/cigar smoke/car exhaust drifted in from the ceiling and surrounded the characters milling about, waiting patiently. 

Covered in a light smoke, one notices the fear in the eyes of the disillusioned.  They don’t seem so weary, or hungry, but they are.  And because of the smoke you don’t see the holes in their shoes, the patches on their tattered clothes, or the dirt on their bodies, but they are aware, and they know you know.  

And they wait; the smoldering sweating masses are left to absorb the aggressive work related rants from all around them until they are unable to take more of it. And finally they must speak.

“Getting it off your chest” is the first act of recovery.  The second is raising your fist in solidarity with those who stand beside you in a quest for a better life.  

Waiting for Lefty is an inspiring play and just the thing to see this Labor Day month through October 10, 2010.   Produced and directed by Charlie Mount at Theatre West.

There are various versions of this play floating around.  Samuel French has the edited version.  (They took all the communist references out and never bothered to put them back in.)

Nevertheless, this is a poignant play that could use moments to update it to today’s themes, which are not that far from yesterday’s problems.  It’s funny how, even today with one out of seven Americans living in poverty, change labels you red, or a communist, or a movement is referenced as a call to socialism.

This version of the 1935 play may have been edited.  There were moments missing, moments that didn’t quite work, like Jell-O you put in the refrigerator at night only to find the green liquidly stuff in the morning. Why does this happen?

One might say it was early in the production and the production didn’t quite gel.  Fair enough.

Others might say it was the director’s choices that didn’t quite work. Elements to mold this play into one seamless endeavor seems to be missing, but finding a way to make it all make sense is the job of the director.

For example, there was a lot of smoke in the halls but no one was smoking nor was there taxicabs heard in the background as a cause, fixable mistakes and possibly overlooked.  (In the written version, Fatt is smoking a cigar but not in this play.)

Also no one was waiting for Lefty.  No one anticipated Lefty walking through the door.  We knew they were waiting, simply by the dialogue, but there was no action to indicate otherwise.

Secondly, no one looked like a cab driver.   They seemed to be dressed for the period, their clothes tattered, their shoes worn, their bodies hungry, their souls empty, but not one sign of a cab or anything to do with a cab anywhere.  A little bit of symbolism goes a long way in a production such as this.

And that’s why I’m against the strike because we gotta stand behind the man who’s standing’ behind us! - Fatt

Harry Fatt (Anthony Gruppuso) is a speaker who lives life in the excessive, a big guy, who doesn’t miss too many meals. Although a member of the union, he is definitely against the strike and possible in cahoots with management.  Someone you’d root against and Gruppuso does a grand job.

Stand up like men and fight for the crying kids and wives. Goddamnit!  I’m tired of slavery and sleepless night. – Edna 

There are breakaway scenes that explore life away from the union hall and the first story is Joe (Paul Gunning) and Edna (Kristin Wiegand). Joe is beaten, and comes home to find his furniture has been repossessed and this is the story he must relate to the guys at the union house.

But, when Joe returns home to find strength from his wife, she is on the verge of ending their relationship. His family life is nearing an end and he desperately fights to keep all of it.  Gunning and Weigand are fine actors. Gunning, angst ridden, and maybe a little too beaten down but successful in his struggle to hold on to his marriage.  And while Weigand is a superior actress, her objective was not decisive enough to get Joe to do what needs to be done.

Joe:  Where are you going?

Edna:  Don’t you remember my old boy friend?

Joe:  Who?

Edna:  Bud Haas.  He still has my picture in his watch.  He earns a living.


The second episode is about Miller (Donald Moore) a lab assistant and Fayette (Roger Cruz) an industrialist.  Fayette wants Miller to spy on a doctor who works for him and Miller, conflicted by the kind of money he will make, tries to find a way out of this predicament.  The fact he is telling this to his union will tell you how this all turned out. Moore and Cruz are fine in this episode, but the written moments are sharper, the conflict deeper, and the battle for supremacy is even greater.

The third episode is about Sid (Adam Conger) and his girl Florrie (Heather Alyse Becker).  The beginning slightly abbreviates the back-story of getting involved with a young hack (taxi driver) so it starts in the middle and never gets on track.  They’ve been engaged for three years and Sid wants to put a stop to it.  But there is something missing in this story. The conflict not great, the turning point in their lives not deep enough. No doubt Conger feels something with grand emotional outpouring on stage but the physical life with Alyse not dramatic enough to be engaging.

Another episode takes us into a producer’s office where a young actor is trying hard to become the next, well maybe just a working actor. Philips (Jason Galloway) walks in the producer’s office, Grady (Alan Schack) and speaks to the secretary (Sandra Tucker) about getting a job from Grady. While Philips is hungry for a job he can’t get passed the pesky secretary.  Grady comes out, dominates, and manipulates the struggling actor. The only mishap is that there is no visible change in Philips character when he greets the producer.

“One dollar buys ten loaves of bread, mister. Or one dollar buys nine loaves of bread and one copy of The Communist Manifesto!  Learn while you eat.” – the Secretary

The irony was, this was one of the best scenes in the show, and it didn’t completely work.  It may work one day. Schack is a fantastic actor, wonderful style, and wonderful in execution.  Galloway is remarkable in his own right, choices not always right on, but sensitive and dramatic. Tucker was just wonderful. The performance worked! (This scene is not in the Samuel French edition.)

“But Fatt’s right. Our officers is right.  The time ain’t ripe.  Like a fruit don’t fall off the tree until it’s ripe.” – Clayton

Clayton (Alan Freeman) is a big time labor spy trying to convince the union member to side with management.  His brother (Charles Baird) is there to stop him. There were wonderful moments from Freeman and Baird.  When they come together are they going to hug or kill each other? One is not quite sure. 

One other thing in this production, it doesn’t make sense if the Gunman (David Baer) is not carrying a secret with him throughout the play. Although he is menacing, that can’t be the only level in his character.

Rounding out another scene in the cast were Dr. Barnes (Walter Beery) and Dr. Benjamin (Elizabeth Bradshaw) that really didn’t work on a various levels. Dr. Benjamin being Jewish and moments that were to tell us about religious discrimination but ultimately failed to do so.

Also, one can only marvel at the performance of Daniel Keough playing Agate Keller. He was in the background for most of the performance but never lost sight of his objective.  Keller is a wonderful character actor and a strong silent type waiting for his moment in the union hall to send all on the incredible journey of solidarity.

“And when we die they’ll know what we did to make a new world! Christ, cut us up to little pieces.  We’ll die for what is right! Put fruit trees where our ashes are! Well, what’s the answer? Strike!  Louder! STRIKE!”   - Agate

Director and producer Charlie Mount needs more time to put the pieces together.  It is a monumental task to serve as director and producer.  But, in all honesty, this is a fine production, the crowd scenes, are enough to raise the hackles on the back of your neck.

Anybody who’s been to a SAG meeting knows how passionate these meetings can be.  Waiting for Lefty needs more passion so that we can all stand together, lock arms, and be proud that we were once part of that moment.

* Elia Kazan A Life 1988

Sept 3 thru October 10, 2010

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