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Arts and Entertainment

Theater Review: Waiting for Lefty in North Hollywood

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Photo: Thomas Mikusz


Photo: Thomas Mikusz
Before there was Billy Bragg, before there was Saul Alinsky, before there was Cesar Chavez, before there was Walter Reuther--there were playwright Clifford Odets and the unseen title character of his 1936 play Waiting for Lefty. At the height of the Great Depression, Odets and the legendary Group Theatre created this agitprop classic about a New York taxi drivers' union local meeting and the members' heated argument about whether to go out on strike. But there aren't only career taxi drivers in this union hall. There's also a former doctor, a former actor, and a former chemist, all of whom turned to driving cabs when their own professional opportunities were quashed by the forces of wealth, power, and corruption hovering over their heads.

TheaterWest's new production of Waiting for Lefty doesn't update the play for our times (beyond reassigning the gender of one character from male to female and excising a few hosannas to the old Soviet Union) or otherwise present it as anything but a straight-ahead period piece, although the general parallel between hard times then and hard times now is inescapable. Odets introduces us to each of the rank-and-file hacks in the room, one after another, by flashing back to the respective critical moments when they realized that their lives and hopes were being crushed by the capitalist system and their company bosses. Inspired by their desperation, they have all now assembled in the union hall ready to fight back and go on strike. They're just waiting for Lefty to show up and lead them. In the meantime, though, the group's activist impulses are opposed by the clearly corrupt union leader Harry Fatt (Anthony Gruppuso), who urges them not to make trouble, and his silently menacing armed sidekick.

Some of the drivers' background stories are more compelling than others. One has lost the respect of his wife for his inability to support their family. Another refuses to marry his girl because he knows he can't afford to. The former doctor is let go from the hospital where she works because she is Jewish, while the incompetent nephew of a Senator gets to stay on. The chemist is fired because he refuses to provide secret reports about his supervisor to company and government big wigs. The actor didn't get hired because he didn't look right for the part he was auditioning for (as we said, some of the back stories are more compelling than others). At one point Fatt brings in a cab driver from Philadelphia to express the dissenting point of view, based on his own experience of a union walkout in that city, that the time isn't right for a strike just now, but he gets shot down from a surprising direction.

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Director Charlie Mount smoothly moves the actors on and off stage and into the back rows and aisles of the audience where their catcalls and heckling create the effect that even we in our seats are right in the middle of this lively, contentious meeting. And set designer Jeff Rack has created an absolutely perfect old-fashioned drab union meeting room. Somewhat unfortunately, Mount and his actors decline to significantly modulate the tone of the action from scene to scene, so we do end up spending a lot of time with characters just yelling at each other to indicate how upset they really are about their conditions. Little matter, though. As a historical specimen of a theater era completely different from our own, Waiting for Lefty is eminently enjoyable. And I'm quite sure the cast won't mind if you are swept up in the surging chant of "Strike! Strike! Strike! Strike!..." at play's end.

Waiting for Lefty
Friday and Saturday nights at 8, Sundays at 2, through Oct 10.
Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Boulevard West.
$14-$15 tickets available on goldstar.com, lastagealliance.com, and (using promo code 008) plays411.net.
Full price tickets, ranging from $6 to $28, sold on the TheatreWest web site.