Its premiere was a watershed in American theatrical history, galvanizing an audience caught in the throes of the Great Depression. Clifford Odets’ “Waiting for Lefty” catapulted a then-unknown playwright from the Group Theatre into the limelight, helping to win him recognition as the “poet of the Jewish middle class” and the “proletarian Jesus.” Indeed, the author of such gut-wrenching dramas as “Awake and Sing!” and “Paradise Now” was a major inspiration for Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and other playwrights who wrote about common people searching desperately for a sense of dignity.
“Waiting for Lefty,” which revolves around a politically charged taxi drivers meeting, now returns in an Off-Off-Broadway production. The 1935 one-act play, which is produced by a theater company called Honest Liars, is running in a new performing arts space behind a tile shop in Chelsea.
Directed by Lily Warpinski, “Waiting for Lefty” is comprised of six short scenes. As the drivers debate acrimoniously whether or not to strike, one of them, Joe (John Isgro), sees his marriage begin to crumble from his inability to provide for his wife, Edna (Elizabeth Alice Murray) and children. Another driver, Sid (Matt Alford), tries to break up with his girlfriend, Florrie (Calaine Schafer) because he fears that his financial prospects are bleak. And a young surgeon, Dr. Benjamin (Michael Washington Brown), is radicalized after he abruptly loses his internship because of anti-Semitism.
The hour-long play ends with the drivers shouting in unison for a strike, which led, at the premiere, to 28 curtain calls and the storming of the stage by the audience. The play was, as one of the Group’s founders, Harold Clurman, put it, “the birth cry of the ’30s.” According to Odets’ biographer, the Harvard psychologist Margaret Brenman-Gibson, “Waiting for Lefty” would be “more frequently produced and more frequently banned all over the world … than any other play in theatre history.”
Warpinski, who grew up in the South and Midwest, came to New York to attend the NYU Tisch School of the Arts, from which she graduated two years ago. In order to prepare for the production, Warpinski told The Jewish Week, she read Brenman’s biography, looked at pictures by the Jewish artist Ben Shahn, and listened to music from the 1930s by Cab Calloway, Bessie Smith, and others.
“Waiting for Lefty” asks, in Warpinski’s words, “how much it takes for you to stand up and speak your mind without being worried about the consequences.” She noted that the play resonates with the ongoing economic turmoil in the country, and particularly with union-busting in Wisconsin and other states.
Odets’ play is the Honest Liars’ first production. Warpinski hopes that it will kick off a series of performances around the country, which will be staged in collaboration with community-based theater groups and will present other plays that deal with local issues, such as the rising population of drifters in the Pacific Northwest.
But even as she plans the creation of “little pockets of Honest Liars all over the country,” Warpinski conceded that she and many other artists of her generation are having a rocky time trying to make it in New York. “We’re worried about how to survive in a city that’s a bit savage at times,” she said. Like the characters in Odets’ plays, this economic struggle “keeps us from living our lives to the fullest.”
“Waiting for Lefty” runs through June 23 at the Spark Cafe and Art Center, 161 W. 22nd St. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 9 p.m., and Saturday at 7 and 10 p.m. For tickets, $18 (which includes a union button and a drink), e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.