Reviewed by Christopher Comte
The opening night performance of Clifford Odets' first major work, "Waiting For Lefty" is the stuff of theatrical legend. One evening in the spring of 1935, his one-act play about New York City taxi drivers voting to go on strike ignited a spark within its audience that has seldom been matched for the sheer fervor of emotion it instilled, either before or since. Any subsequent production is not only saddled with the burden of that legacy, but is tasked, perhaps unfairly, of breathing new life into a work that, while fully of its time and place, can today feel woefully dated and na‘ve in its intent and aspirations. Capitol Hill Arts Center, which is quickly developing a reputation for reinvigorating oft-neglected contemporary classics, does great credit to Odets work, but even in the capable hands of director Sheila Daniels, it nevertheless falls agonizingly short of achieving the same sort of effect that the original Group Theatre production inspired.
While Daniels must bear some of the responsibility for this in her overall staging, one must also grant that Odet's fragmented, back-and-forth structure seems less effective today than perhaps it did at the time of its initial production. By alternating scenes taking place at a meeting of the taxi drivers discussing whether or not to strike against flashbacks showing how individual drivers came to be aware of (what Karl Marx termed) their "class consciousness", the play requires swift transitions between scenes in order to maintain the dramatic pace of the main story line. This would not be so problematic except that Daniels has chosen to mount "Lefty" in-the-round, which, while it has the advantage of placing the actors in intimate proximity to the audience, only allows for a single, small playing area, requiring numerous changeovers that tend to diminish the sense of momentum, and which ultimately negate any movement toward the sort of emotional crescendo Odets seems to have intended. Daniels attempts to smooth over these transitions with snippets of period music, performed with polish and finesse by the cast, but even this tends to increase the sense of emotional distance we feel from the characters. On the other hand, Daniels stages individual scenes, wherein we see how each of the cabbies became aware of their situation, with poignancy and sensitivity that will move even the most jaded theatre-goer
It is in these brief, aching moments of individual conflict that Daniel's production emerges from the long shadow of "Lefty"'s legacy, not by rousing the audience's political anger, but rather by pulling on our heartstrings, emphasizing the more personal tragedies experienced by each of the characters, all of whom are placed in the dilemma of determining their own worth as human beings against the alternative of becoming faceless cogs in the great machine called "Capitalism". And it is in these scenes that her cast shines. While there are moments of confusion due to some less-than-effective double-casting, these brief domestic dramas sparkle with the kind of emotional intensity in which Daniels excels. Of particular note are those between Joe (Peter Dylan O'Connor) and his wife Edna (Jena Cane) and between the affianced Sid (Toy Fischnaller) and "his girl", Florrie (Kate Czajkowski), both of which expose in no uncertain terms the abject indignity of poverty, and the emasculation of the human spirit that is forced upon good people when they are reduced to choosing between love and subsistence. In each case, it is the women who prove more indomitable than their men, and both actresses give strong performances, of equal parts desperation and dignity, drawing lines that in one instance prove barely crossable, and in the other, tragically impassible; O'Connor's and Fischnaller's characters reach vastly different ends, but their struggles to come to terms with their respective realities are equally heartbreaking. The scenes represent Odets best writing in the play, and provide tantalizing hints to the heights he would reach in later works such as, "Rocket To The Moon", "Golden Boy", and his screenplay for the 1958 film "The Sweet Smell Of Success".
In other scenes, such as those between a struggling actor (Garlyn Punau), a callous producer (John Farrage) and a sympathetic secretary (Laurie Johnson), or between an industrial chemist (Chris Macdonald) and his employer (Sean Gormley), or two doctors (Aimee Bruneau and James Winkler) Odets exhibits his inexperience as a writer by brazenly wearing his politics on his sleeve (he joined the American Communist Party in 1934, although he would later renounce his association before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947). These characters, while engaging in crackling abstract philosophical discourse and occasional sly humor, generally lack the same level of emotional stakes, reducing them to the level of two-dimensional avatars either championing or obstructing Odets' own point-of-view. To their credit, however, the individual performers lend their characters sufficient dignity or venality respectively to rise above the somewhat limiting confines of Odets' polemic.
In the darkest days of the Great Depression Odets great achievement was in crafting a bold theatrical treatise on the plight of the workingman that deeply resonated with the audience of his day. Here in post-millennial America, things haven't reached nearly the same nadir, and so it becomes a nearly impossible task to emulate the same sense of desperation and powerlessness felt by the middle-class of that earlier time, and thus much more difficult to prick us into the same degree of awareness. We live in a much more cynical time, one in which 20-20 hindsight grants us the perspective of knowing that the principles Odets espoused have themselves been proven to be somewhat lacking. Thus, we are deprived of fully empathizing with the plight of the drivers, but while we may not feel compelled to leave the theater chanting, "Strike! Strike!" in the same way that 1935 audience did, we can still be moved by the simple longings of his characters, all of whom struggle in hopes of securing a better life for themselves and for their families. It is this universal theme of overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds that elevates "Lefty" out of the realm of mere political polemic and into that of dramatic tragedy. And it is on this level that CHAC's production proves its worth.