WAITING FOR LEFTY, by Clifford Odets, directed by Sue Crystal: scenery by Russell Metheny; costume by Jane Phelan.
With Bill Shapland, Billy Schlaht, Paula Marmon, Richard Smith, Nick Mathwick, Richard Hart, T. G. Finkbinder, Gail Sawyer, Steven Blenstock, Robert Daley, Deborah Stromberg, David Barazda, Steven Dawn, Mark Selinger, David Sitomer, Vincent J. Brown and Sare Chafin. At the Studio Theatre, 1401 Church St. NW, through June 8. CAPTION: Picture, Deborah Stromberg and Steven Dawn in "Waiting for Lefty"; by Rick Reinhard. $120
When Clifford Odets wrote "Waiting for Lefty" in 1935, he wasn't writing for the ages.He was just trying to provide a troupe of left-minded young actors with a piece that could be quickly mounted and dismounted for one-night stands in auditoriums and union meeting halls. Inspired by a brief New York taxi strike, Odets wrote "Lefty" in three nights, and it was performed in a basement theater near Union Square with a cast heavily composed of actors from Lee Strasberg's and Harold Clurman's Group Theater -- those not involved in the Group's official uptown production of Odets' "Awake and Sing."
Nowadays, "Awake and Sing" is one of the few specimens of radical '30s theater that anyone has the nerve to revive -- understandably, since it is a play that can still make audiences laugh and gasp and cry and sit on the edge of their seats. But its lasting strengths make it somewhat unrepresentative of the genre. To truly understand the character of this exciting but awkward epoch in the American theater, we need to plunge into more bombastic and simplistic fare -- which means plays like "Waiting for Lefty."
"Lefty" is not only a period piece, but the period piece of the period in question. More than any other work, it evokes a merger of radical politics and experimental theater that happened only this once in American history.
When "Lefty" was first performed, audiences (its audiences, at any rate) were so ready for such a turn that, at the final curtain, they stood with the cast to shout "Strike" with arms and voices raised. Sunday night's audience as the Studio Theatre didn't get quite so passionately into the swim of things, but there was a feeling of urgency and authenticity in the air just the same.
The Studio's stated aim is to re-create specialized traditions of acting (commedia del arte, Chinese opera, Chekhovian realism etc.) with respect and care. "Waiting for Lefty" fulfills that mission admirably. The actors look and talk as we can imagine a '30s company of young New York actors looking and talking, and they play their parts with infectious energy, even when the class struggle has (as it does from time to time) a certain comic-strip quality to it.
Structured as a union meeting with flashbacks to scenes in the hard-pressed lives of several cabdrivers, "Lefty" includes confrontations that are laughable -- notably one between a chemical worker and the boss who wants him to help develop a new brand of poison gas. But even in this dash-off, ideologically straitjacketed play, the artist in Odets shines through now and again.
"You look tired," says one moneystarved cabdriver to his wife, trying to change the subject away from the overdue rent. "What's on your mind?"
"The French and Indian War," she answers sarcastically.
"You don't have to say it," he retorts. "I know what's on your mind -- I'm rat poison around here."
Billy Schlaht and Paula Marmon play these two and their scene with great conviction, but that could be said of many of the actors in this production. Even those called on to portray odious capitalists are convincingly odious.
In fact, this would be a commendable production from beginning to end and top to bottom if it weren't for a few sloppy physical touches (a Damon-Runyon-dressed thug, for example) and one appalling lapse of judgment by director Sue Crystal -- the interpolation into Odets' work of a little play of her own composing, about a dance marathon. "Once again," she explains in a self-justifying program note, "the characters are humiliated, degraded and forced to compromise their humanity."
The thematic relevance of Crystal's tinkering may be debatable. What isn't, unfortunately, is the fact that Odets, being dead, is in no position to protest this unwilling collaboration. They shoot horse and bygone playwrights, too, don't they?