Waiting for Lefty
nytheatre.com review by Mitchell Conway
June 14, 2012
A cab driver’s union meeting contemplating a strike interspersed with scenes of individuals connected to the union and their interpersonal conflicts, as well as other scenes resulting from economic hardship: Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty is a powerful didactic political work. This rendering by the Honest Liars, set in the round, with actors sitting in the audience, seems to aim at our identification with the sentiment of striking against oppressive capitalists, but other discrepancies led me to question that intention.
In the pre-show actors milled about the space. We were prompted to engage with the actors, who had only one word or phrase related to their character they would repeat in interaction. The play’s transitions contain a variety of movement sequences and actors create all of the sets. The surrounding ensemble echo words or phrases from scenes, often in a whisper.
The dynamic of the union meetings is well established, with a variety of side conversations and comments on a speaker’s position. In the personal interactions, John Isgro plays Joe; his wife Edna (Elizabeth Alice Murray) threatens to leave him for another man if he doesn’t do something about their financial situation. A young woman, Florrie, played by Calaine Schafer, wants to get married to Sid (Matt Alford), but despite their long engagement, he remains unable to offer her the support she would need. Lack of money is tearing relationships apart.
Then there are professional interactions, where it seemed like there were a lot of scenes with an arrogant person in power sitting down, while a simple humble helpless worker stands up and struggles. An exception is when Nate Steinwachs played a scientist who won’t spy on his colleague and, leaving, punches his now ex-employer. But those in power are always unsympathetic. Even with Jonathan Williams as Dr. Barnes, who is comparatively kind, there is a bit of a sinister edge to him when he fires Dr. Eli Benjamin. Despite being in the top position in his hospital, the Jewish doctor, played by Michael Washington Brown, loses his position to a lesser doctor related to a member of the board. Barnes, out of weakness, cedes to political pressure at the hospital, but in Williams' rendering it also feels like an assertion of power for its own sake, putting the fault just as much onto his psychological flaws as outside influences. I could not restrain my own judgment that although the men in these positions are doing a great injustice, to overplay their arrogance lessens the overall oppression of the political and economic system at work that requires opposing; unless the production is intentionally deemphasizing the political.
When Pamela Weingarden as a stenographer advocates reading the Communist manifesto to a struggling actor, played by Rafael Miguel, clichéd Soviet singing and stiff militarist gestures followed. This seemed like director Lily Warpinski was making an intentional divide between the strike and Communism as presented in the play. Possibility she felt our general current relationship to the idea of Communism is such that it would somehow profane the message of workers uniting to oppose an unjust power structure.
So who is Lefty? He would be a leader of the movement. Maybe this production indicates the flaw is more in ourselves than in our system, in which case Lefty is irrelevant. But if in accord with a more Marxist view, the system makes the man, than there is hope for a Lefty yet. Neither option is the whole truth, but we are left hoping change is possible.