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Unite or die
Quintessence Theatre Group presents Clifford Odets’s Waiting for Lefty
Clifford Odets hammers his audience with a pro-labor, anti-capitalist message in Waiting for Lefty, now revived by Quintessence Theatre Group in Mt. Airy. His themes resonated in 1935, when the play was premiered by the legendary Group Theatre in the midst of the Great Depression, and its echoes continue to reverberate in our current moment of economic uncertainty. Despite its good political motives, though, the piece can feel clumsily didactic.
The writing fuses maximalism and minimalism. The production requires a large cast—here, 10 people—yet runs barely an hour. Odets considers weighty topics like unionization, communism, and the exploitation of the working class. His characters—members of a New York City taxicab union contemplating a strike—speechify, preach, and shout each other down. Although Odets occasionally works on a distinctly human scale, weaving vignette portraitures between the grand statements, his personae often seem more like archetypes than people.
This is the type of play, and playwright, where a dash of subtlety can go a long way. Quintessence has proven ace at bringing the right soft-grained style to Odets in the past, as seen in their masterful staging of his Awake and Sing in 2019. Yet here, under director Kyle Haden, the production essentially remains at the same fever pitch throughout, an effect that blunts the real hearts of the people who make the union.
Static staging is partially to blame. The script endeavors to make the audience feel like participants at the union hall, getting fired up at the possibility of walking off the job. Quintessence’s flexible home space, the Sedgwick Theater, can be reconfigured to create a more immersive environment, yet the design here adopts a flatly proscenium style. The performers largely interact with patrons seated in the front row, rather than venturing deeper into the auditorium.
The raised-dais set itself (designed by Lindsay Fuori) creates a fair amount of negative space, where flashback scenes chronicle the moments when the taxi drivers were radicalized toward their cause. These snapshots should be galvanic, yet the actors mostly remain fixed in a small playing area, with few props to ground the moments in a sense of realism. The overall effect is one of spectatorship rather than immersion.
Haden attempts to draw contemporary parallels between the 1930s and today, but he works too hard to underline these points. Anachronistic musical cues set many scenes—we hear everything from “9 to 5” to “War (What Is It Good For?)”—and usually seem too clever by half. Elizabeth M. Stewart’s stark lighting design is the prime force of demarcation between the past and the present, though it often comes across as curiously muddled.
All praises to the actors who bring a multidimensional perspective to their characterizations. They include Kimie Muroya, as a former chemist who refuses to spy on a colleague; Katherine Perry and Daniel Melo, as a pair of young lovers too poor to marry; and Doug Harris, as the first driver to sound the call for a strike. Others—like Buzz Roddy as the cigar-chomping union boss, Michael Liebhauser as an idealistic former physician, and Rachel Brodeur as several malicious characters—give flatly predictable performances.
The ideas in Waiting for Lefty are admirable ones, and the struggles of the worker in an unfair system will remain sadly relevant for a long time to come. Odets wanted to rile up his audience, to the point where they feel compelled to join in the chorus of striking voices that closes the play. Too frequently at Quintessence, though, you’re left feeling outside the drama, a neutral observer rather than an active participant.
What, When, Where
Waiting for Lefty. By Clifford Odets, directed by Kyle Haden. $15-$59. Quintessence Theatre Group. Through February 12, 2023, at the Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia. (215) 987-4450 or quintessencetheatre.org.
Masks are optional.
The Sedgwick Theater is a wheelchair-accessible venue with private, accessible bathrooms.
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