‘Waiting for Lefty’ portrays Depression-era exploitation
By Cynthia Citron
LOS ANGELES — As a passionate piece of 20th century history, it works. As a parable for the present day, not so much.
Clifford Odets’ 1935 Depression-era play Waiting for Lefty is a rabble-rousing tirade against big business and its heavy-handed control of the “downtrodden masses.” A situation that might resonate with Americans today, except for the out-of-date solution Odets offers: Russian-style socialism.
Nevertheless, Director Charlie Mount has assembled a truly committed and convincing ensemble—extraordinary actors, every one of them. They represent a branch of the taxi drivers’ union, shouting their stories from the stage and from the audience. And the stories themselves are, sadly, relevant today.
A young couple (Heather Alyse Becker and Adam Conger) can’t afford to get married. A charity patient dies during routine surgery. A man (Paul Gunning) is verbally attacked by his wife (Kristin Wiegand) for not standing up to his bosses. (”You are stalled like a flivver in the snow,” she tells him.) A doctor with seniority (Elizabeth Bradshaw) is “down-sized” because she is a woman and a Jew. “You don’t believe a theory until it happens to you,” she says. And another man (Jason Galloway) is rudely turned away when applying for a job. He is comforted by a secretary (Sandra Tucker) who offers him a book that she suggests will help him. It is Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ Communist Manifesto.
The vignettes are gripping and filled with pathos and elicit an emotional response from the audience. As does Anthony Gruppuso, who plays Harry Fatt, the representative from Management. If anyone can steal this excellent show, Gruppuso does. He is a fireball, charging all over the stage, one moment cajoling, another shouting disputations, getting into a fistfight, and holding back the union’s decision to strike. He is everywhere at once, and if the audience had been provided with eggs, he’s the one they would have bombarded.
In another telling vignette, a worker in a chemical plant (Donald Moore) is offered a huge pay raise by his boss (Roger Cruz) to spy on a fellow scientist who is working on poison gas. True to Odets’ socialist philosophy about the goodness of “the common man,” the compromised worker refuses, even though it means he will lose his job.
Capitalism, the clash between the various classes, and the ever-present bigotry against immigrants and other outsiders, is what the play is all about. It was a dark time, the ‘30s, when up to 25% of the American work force was out of work. Almost makes the current recession, with just under 10% out of work, look easy. But unfortunately, the roots are pretty much the same.
And I think that’s the point Director Mount is trying to make.
He does this on a nearly empty stage and with a few wooden chairs put together by Set Designer Jeff Rack. And skuzzy outfits, including scuffed and battered shoes, as well as dramatic lighting designed by Yancey Dunham.
Just about the only things that don’t work well are the great billows of mist that are extruded periodically onto the stage in an attempt to simulate a “smoke-filled” union hall. Since nobody on stage is ever seen smoking, the mist sort of misses the point.
But this is a small nitpick in a classic play about a time that older viewers will remember ruefully and younger people will learn about with astonishment and, perhaps, incredulity.
Waiting for Lefty will continue Fridays and Saturdays 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 through October 10th at Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, in Los Angeles. Call (323) 851-7977 for tickets.
Citron is Los Angeles bureau chief for San Diego Jewish World