The intensity of Clifford Odets’ workers play Waiting for Lefty is nearly blinding. In Odets’ short work – really a series of vignettes tied together by a meeting of a taxi drivers labor union – was his first produced stage work in 1935. As originally produced by The Group Theatre, led by Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg, Odets, Stanford Meisner with Elia Kazan, Lee J. Cobb and others among its company, they strived to mount theatre that engaged the social consciousness, and dealt with political commentary in the modern theatre.
The Cripple Creek Theatre Company, the young New Orleans-based troupe, aims to present plays with a similar mission to that of The Group Theatre. With Waiting for Lefty, they have succeeded in their most exciting show to date, as directed by Andy Vaught. There is not one less than convincing performance among this troupe of thirteen actors, especially given the relative youthfulness of the majority of the cast. This short play, which runs only an hour without an intermission, is an excellent mounting of this rarely performed work.
This environmental staging at the Convergence Arts Center at 2130 Magazine Street in the Lower Garden District recreates the Transit Union Meeting Hall, with period folding chairs and appropriate (and ominous) lighting by Andrew Kingsley. The cast arrives before the start of the show one by one, as if to attend the meeting. They sit among the audience, speak in character, and set the mood of what’s to follow. Dressed in period working-class clothing designed by Melissa Clark, the men and women of the cast hover and make small talk until the meeting begins.
The play is bookended by this taxi driver’s union meeting, where union boss Harry Fatt (Dennis McCann) is trying to convince the drivers not to strike. A strong-arm gunman (Freddie Young) looms over the meeting. The workers are all waiting for Lefty, the union board elected chairman, who has yet to show up. Fatt calls Joe (Blake Baudier) a red (communist), and Joe explains to us that he supports a strike for higher wages because his wife convinced him to do it.
Without any change of scenery, the meeting is dissolved and we are at Joe’s apartment, one week earlier. Edna, Joe’s wife, as played by Emilie Whelan, is distressed because her husband is only making $6-$7 a week, and their furniture is being repossessed. It’s not the life they hoped to be living and something has to change. She tells Joe that “Your boss is making suckers out of you guys,” and working for nearly nothing is ruining their lives. These guys are “the black and blue boys, kicked around left and right.” The scene between Edna and Joe was quite powerful, and one could sense the energy and exchange between these two actors.
In the next scene, Mr. Fayette, a powerful industrialist (also played by Mr. Young) convinces Frank Miller (David Glasser) to work as a lab assistant under an important chemist, Dr. Brenner. Brenner is developing poisonous gasses to use in chemical warfare. Miller is hesitant, especially because Fayette wants him to spy on Dr. Brenner and give him a regular report on the happenings in Dr. Brenner’s lab. This leads to a crisis of faith on Miller’s part – because he desperately needs the money, but doesn’t like the idea of spying or developing chemical weapons.
Meanwhile, Irv (Danny Marchese) is trying to convince his sister Florrie (Leah Wingate) not to marry Sid (Sean Mellot), who will not be able to provide for her because he’s just a lowly taxi driver. Sid tells Florrie that his brother joined the Navy this afternoon and that he’s upset that his brother has sold out to the governments pro-war propaganda, only to fight others who are no better off (and therefore no different) than they are. Sid reassures her that he will never leave her, and they dance to a melancholy song on the radio. This is one of the more touching scenes of the play, and somewhat of an emotional release from the heavy social drama in the piece.
The next scene takes us back to the Union Hall and the strike meeting. Fatt is still trying to convince the workers that a strike is a bad idea, and mentions a similar failed strike in Philadelphia. Tom Clayton (Greg Hall) was at that strike and tells the other drivers that Fatt is right and they shouldn’t strike. Clayton is exposed as a company “plant” and the scene dissolves into a doctor’s office where Dr. Barnes is angry that he has been replaced on a surgery by an incompetent doctor, who happens to be the son of a powerful senator. Barnes is played by Charles Vaught, who was last seen in Cripple Creek’s production of The Green, Gold, & Purple Shuffle as a hilarious David Duke running for Commissioner of Parks against currently imprisoned Edwin Edwards. Barnes’ colleague, Dr. Benjamin (played by J.R. Fader in a role originally played by Odets himself) is fired for being Jewish. Once Barnes and Benjamin learn that the previously mentioned surgery went wrong and the patient died, Benjamin decides to join the fight with the radicals, maybe even becoming a taxi driver, even if it may mean death.
The play closes with the fiery taxi drivers’ meeting, with the workers banding together to strike, no matter what the consequences.
The struggles of the mid-1930s in the play resonate clearly with New Orleans audiences. We are in a war, and the national media attention brought to the city post-Katrina have highlighted our seemingly unsolvable racial and class issues. The Cripple Creek Theatre Company continues with their all-important mission to bring these issues to light and maybe we too will wake up and make changes for the betterment of society, and our city.
Waiting for Lefty by Clifford Odets
at the Convergence Arts Center
2130 Magazine Street
Admission is free, donations are accepted
for reserved seating, call 504/891.6815
Thursday-Saturday at 8 pm
Now through May 27
Directed by Andy Vaught
Sets and Lighting Designed by Andrew Kingsley
Costumes Designed by Melissa Clark
With Blake Baudier, Charles Vaught, Danny Marchese, David Glasser, Dennis McCann, Emilie Whelan, Freddie Young, Greg Hall, J.R. Fader, Leah Wingate, Philip Yiannopoulos, Sean Mellot, & T.J. Toups