What with “socialist” becoming the catchall insult du jour among some segments of the American public, what better time to dust off one of the most successful stage manifestos of the left-leaning Group Theatre of the 1930s and examine how pertinent its messages might seem today? Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty was inspired by the New York City taxi drivers’ strike of 1934, and it really struck a chord with audiences of its time. But many of its themes – union-busting, political corruption, rampant unemployment, espionage, the chemical weapons industry, health care for the poor, anti-Semitism – still trouble our minds in the modern world, even if the play’s “red” idealism later took a hit from the ugly practices of the Stalin regime from which it has yet to recover.
Aside from its political content, Waiting for Lefty ignited a revolutionary trend in stage technique by breaking through the “fourth wall,” salting the hall with actors and drawing theatre audiences into the crowd scenes that dominate the play. Anyone who has ever attended a large political demonstration knows the neurotransmitter high that one can get from being surrounded by thousands of like-minded people; something of that process must click in when one goes from being a passive audience member to a “participant” in a drama, even if it’s only in a playwright’s fantasy world. If theatre is supposed to move us, here’s one way to make it happen.
Check out what it feels like to watch Waiting for Lefty in contemporary America at the Quimby Theater on the SUNY-Ulster in Stone Ridge this weekend, as the community college’s Theater Program completes its two-week revival of the classic play. Performances begin at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, April 18 to 20, and at 3 p.m. on Sunday, April 21. Tickets are available at the door for a suggested donation of $10, with SUNY-Ulster students admitted free of charge.
The student cast consists of David Inge as Fatt, Tim Bruck as Joe, Raine D’IIorio as Fayette, Ray Constantino as Irv, Matt Wilhelm as Sid, Tom Hansen as Clayton, Khalil Franklin as Agate, Adam Blank as the Gunman, Andrew Woltman as the Voice, Charlotte Knapp as Dr. Barnes, Jeremy McLaughlin as Dr. Benjamin, Sean Haber as the Man, Geneva Turner and Quayeshawna Smith as Edna, Maggie Rappleyea and Julia Doi as Miller, Noelle Crocco and Laura Bolukbasi as Florrie and Tyler Carelli, Jillian Kahn and Sean Haber as ensemble members. Stephen Balantzian directs.
Waiting for Lefty by Clifford Odets, Thursday-Saturday, April 18, 19 & 20, 8 p.m., Sunday, April 21, 3 p.m., $10, Quimby Theater, SUNY-Ulster, 491 Cottekill Road, Stone Ridge; (845) 688-1959, https://apps.sunyulster.edu/events/961.