A very timely Waiting for Lefty revival shines in Carmel.
Thursday, February 19, 2009
“We got the blues – the 1935 blues,’’ Sid, a struggling taxi driver, tells his girlfriend by way of an explanation for why they should break up. The scene takes place in a revival of Clifford Odets’ rabble-rousing classic, Waiting for Lefty, at the Indoor Forest Theatre, which couldn’t possibly be more timely. The production launched Odets’ career when it was first put on by the Group Theater during the Great Depression, and still plays as though it were ripped from today’s headlines.
Based on a real-life event, a failed strike by taxi drivers in New York City, Odets’ drama focuses on the conflict between the corpulent, corrupt union leader, Harry Fatt (played here with humor and bravado by Peter Eberhardt), who warns the angry workers that they run the risk of losing everything, like those in a unsuccessful walk-out in Philadelphia. He urges them to trust that things will work out now that they have a new president, FDR, whose framed picture hangs in a corner of the stage.
Offstage, the voices of impatient militants cry out, “Where’s Lefty?’’ – Lefty Costello, the firebrand union leader who they believe better represents their interests. But for the rest of the play, Lefty, like Godot, remains offstage. He’s a reminder of what could have been – and what might be – in sharp contrast to the racketeers who run the union or the cab company that is keeping their wages artificially low. Fatt disparagingly lets one of the other union members, Joe, speak instead, but dismisses his arguments as those of a “Red.’’ (Ironically, Odets was later denounced for “naming names’’ of fellow Communists to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee; his defense was that he also denounced the Committee’s authority and only gave the names they already knew, but he remained an unforgiven, tortured figure.)
The one-act play, directed expertly here by Forest Theatre artistic director Nick Hovick, who helmed the revival of The Petrified Forest earlier this season, is a series of blackout sketches, addressing various issues of the day.
Besides the taxi labor dispute, they include the domestic woes between Joe (Daniel DeCamp) and his wife, Edna (Mary Pommerich), stirred by the economic troubles never far beneath the surface for these characters; an industrialist, Fayette (Keith Decker), who tries to enlist his subordinate, Miller (Adam Lembeck), to spy on a scientist working on a poison gas program; the love story between Sid (Jordan Garrick), the cabbie with the blues, his girlfriend, Florrie (Natalie Hall) and her disapproving brother, Irv (Drew Davis-Wheeler); and the drama between Dr. Barnes (Gerry Kapolka) and the young resident, Dr. Benjamin (Cloud Pemble) whom he lets go because the hospital is facing financial problems (sound familiar?) and is closing its charity ward. Besides, Benjamin is being let go because he’s Jewish – and they have to keep a job open for an incompetent Senator’s son.
The two have a wrenching conversation in which Barnes allows that he would quit himself if he were younger, and didn’t have an invalid child to support; Benjamin flirts with the idea of moving to Russia but decides to stay to fight for health care, and his own rights, in this country.
There’s also a feminist subtext. Edna describes the pain of putting her children to bed early without dinner, goads Joe into standing up for his rights and hints at an affair with a more successful ex-boyfriend; Florrie defends her right to love Sid against the demands of her scoffing brother, but ultimately capitulates.
But the heart, and most successfully rendered portion, of the play is the taxi dispute.
When Fatt brings in a man named Tom Clayton (Mark Burgman) to the meeting to back him up about the futility of a strike, he is exposed as a company man who’s been breaking up unions for years by an unexpected source – his brother, Clancy (Savva Vassiliev, in a brief, fiery turn).
The mystery of Lefty’s whereabouts are revealed: He’s been shot. Finally, the men decide they’ve had enough.
One angry cabbie avows, “If we’re Reds because we wanna strike, then we take over their salute, too!’’ As they give the Communist salute, the drivers face the audience and take up Odets’ famous shout: “Strike! Strike! Strike! Strike!’’
In 1997, the New York Times gave a revival of this play a tepid notice: “Lacking the economic disaster and political context that once validated it, however, the play now is oddly airless. (Perhaps in an era of civil tumult, like the 1960’s, it would have seemed more relevant.)’’
But Waiting for Lefty couldn’t be more relevant to our current dilemmas, and the Indoor Forest Theatre is to be commended for this fine production. People still got the blues in 2009, in spades.
Waiting for Leftyruns 8pm, Fri-Sat; 2:30pm Sun, Indoor Forest Theatre, Mountain View between Santa Rita and Guadalupe, Carmel. $20 general; $15 student, senior, military; $10 children 12 and under. 724-1531, www.cetstaffplayers.org,www.ticketguys.com. Through March 8.