Sticking to the Union

Ever since the scope of our “great economic downturn” became clear, comparisons of the late-aughts and the Thirties’ Great Depression have been common.  And, with all those tents decorating the New Haven Green since the fall, it’s also clear that things aren’t improving in any hurry.  What better time—before we meet on the barricades—to stage a classic of the American stage that makes heroes of the underemployed, the unemployed, the working poor, and “the little guy” of all varieties?  Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty (1935) was a hit in its day because its simple message struck a nerve—it dramatized the situation effectively: on the Right, the owners; on the Left, the Unions, supposedly for the working-class, but often corrupt, existing simply to support an intermediate level of bosses between the workers and the owners.  And, beyond the impasse of those “two parties,” the radical solution: in Odets’ day, the Communists, or the radical Left; in our day, the radical Right. It wouldn’t be hard to rewrite some of Lefty to make it even more pertinent to our times, but the production staged by The New Haven Theater Company, directed by Steve Scarpa, is faithful to the text.  As Scarpa points out, his production even adds a scene that was cut by Odets in later versions of the play.  It involves on out-of-work actor trying to talk his way into a stage role; he’s rejected by the fractious producer, but is given a saving grace by the bigwig’s benign secretary: The Communist Manifesto, comrade.

Viewers today may wish there were some easily issued solution that would solve all our problems, and find themselves nostalgic for a time when the formula seemed graspable: read a book, change the world.  In any case, it’s hard not to hear the characters who advocate a strike—the play’s vignettes are framed by a workers’ meeting—as voicing some version of today’s “occupy” movement, and it’s hard not to hear the excuses of the bosses as the same kind of lame rhetoric that always begs best intentions while scraping off the underclass.  The dramatic vignettes of the downtrodden (aka, the 99%) (which includes a surgeon for the poor fired because she’s Jewish—we can reflect that at least the medical profession has learned to look out for itself since Odets’ day!)—are mostly soap opera-ish, but that’s where Odets’ gift lay: he was able to translate the problems of the day into brief emotive exchanges anyone not well-off can relate to, and which almost anyone can act: the couple arguing over rent and food; the technician being asked to do some corporate spying to get ahead; the minority professional getting the axe; the applicant desperate for work facing a brush-off; the young couple who can’t get started in life because they simply don’t have the skills or job prospects needed.  Meanwhile, back at the union meeting, things get ugly, with strike-breakers in their midst, then turn violent.

In the vignettes, the scenes between a man and woman have the most skill: Joe (Brian Willetts) and his wife Edna (Hallie Martenson) establish early the emotional center of the play: these are desperate times and these are ordinary people, grasping at straws: Lefty will help change things; Florrie (Hilary Brown) and Sid (Peter Chenot) are the young couple having to part due to economic constraints, but not before they share a well-played scene involving romantic comedy elements and a sense of thwarted hopes.

The real fire of the play takes place in the meeting with Fatt the Union Leader (George Kulp—he also has fun as Mr. Grady, the theater producer worrying about his dog) attempting to silence the speakers trying to incite action: Joe (Willetts), Keller (Scarpa), and Phillips (Christian Shaboo), who denounces his own brother (Erich Greene) when the latter tries to break the strike.

Special mention also goes to Ben Michalak who covers the scene changes with songs of the times, played on guitar and banjo, giving us the voice of dissent in sing-along form.

Odets’ message: “Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains.”  Have times really changed?

Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty Directed by Steve Scarpa The New Haven Theater Company March 1-3, 2012

118 Court Street New Haven, CT