Review: 'Waiting For Lefty'

Stanford Rep's latest production attempts to rile up audience
'Waiting For Lefty,' part of the Stanford Repertory Theater's series 'Theater Takes a Stand,' is set against the backdrop of a taxi driver strike.

Clifford Odets wrote this American classic in 1935, mid-Depression, for the New York-based Group Theatre—an avant-garde troupe known for its timely and relevant productions. In recent years it has seen a revival of interest, first in London in 2013 and now at the Stanford Repertory Theatre.

Set loosely against the backdrop of a taxi drivers' strike, the play addresses the woes of workers fighting to navigate a cruel and indifferent capitalist system. It fits well within the theme for SRT's current season: "Theater Takes a Stand." Depression-era audiences are said to have raved over the play, cheering it on and revelling in its message of revolt and activism. But the crowd at a recent showing didn't seem spurred to action.

The story opens on a group of taxi drivers as they debate a possible strike in their union hall. The drivers' wages have sunk to a new low, the bosses are unresponsive, there's no work to be had and the struggle for survival is becoming dire. Amid fierce arguments and hotly thrown insults, they wait for Lefty—a recognized leader whom they all trust to help them decide their best move.

Cutting away to a troubled home, the narrative narrows its focus, zooming in on a family hit hard by dried-up wages. More scenes unfold to show variations on a theme—the greedy policies of hard-hearted business owners, the struggles of working people, the fight for unions, and the trickle-down effects of low wages on all. At times, speaking directly to the audience, characters enlist our agreement, our understanding and empathy for the plight. A vigorous petition leaves no doubt where our allegiance should lie.

SRT's production gives the piece great energy and passion, and there's no question these themes are still relevant today. However, the audience at a recent performance was decidedly cooler in its response, greeting the players with polite applause rather than shouts and cheers. Some of the play does feel dated—reflecting 1930s mores; but its themes should nevertheless resonate with a modern audience. Wage gap? Heck yeah! Union-busting? Of course! Fired for having ethics? Been there!

So, why the chilly reception?

Odets employs storytelling methods common to agit-prop plays popular in the '30s, including an episodic structure. The play unfolds in six loosely related vignettes. Actors frequently address the audience directly, including them in the action as if they're attendees at the union meeting. Reportedly, audiences of the '30s were empowered by the play. Perhaps those techniques no longer elicit the same kind of response in a world driven by social media, where furious debates are tapped out 140 characters at a time, but rarely translate into face-to-face political action.

Is agit-prop dead? Are theatre audiences no longer interested in political activism generated within a theatrical context? Or is it possibly a generational issue? Would millennials, if they come to the theater at all, find this kind of production more invigorating than standard theater fare? It's puzzling. Essentially, all stage productions are political on some level; but do we now prefer something more subtle rather than a direct punch?

Director Marty Pistone and his cast have given the play a generous airing, investing it with a raw power and vitality that surely could rouse an audience to its feet. The mostly young, dynamic cast includes standouts Austin Caldwell as Joe, Dante Belletti as both Miller and Clayton, and Fiona Maguire as Florrie. Costumes by Alina Bokovikova capture the period well, and a few well-placed props help ground us in the decade. The nearly bare stage, as recommended by Odets and realized by Pistone, leans on the audience's imagination to picture a corporate office, a living room, a union hall and more.

Would it have fared better if the piece were updated? Would it have spurred more outrage if the taxi drivers were being replaced by Uber operators? Would a contemporary context and a more diverse cast help bring the timelessness of the message to a modern audience? Catch the show and see for yourself.

Waiting For Lefty
Thru Aug 21, Various Times, $15-$25
Nitery Theatre, Stanford

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