Saturday, September 11, 2010

[NOTE:  This review was originally published at Stage Happenings.]

Waiting for Lefty at Theatre West

by Andrew Moore

The "storm birds of the working class" have landed onstage at Theatre West, and they have brought a thoroughly enjoyable evening of theatre.

Director Charlie Mount has done a masterful job. Young directors would do well to attend this play and take notes: Mount owns his stage. No bit of blocking is wasted on trifles or dead-end conceits. Each player is exactly where he or she needs to be at all times. Yet there is a looseness about it all; an engineered chaos that doesn't seem engineered. It is the stamp of a professional that the strings never show, and so it is we know that a master is at work.

There is an effortless congruity in the design work. It is rather difficult to comment upon an environment so thoughtfully and elegantly rendered. It simply exists, an understated presence that lends authenticity to the actors efforts. The set by Jeff Beck encompasses the audience ever-so subtly. The attention to detail (a historically accurate, 48-star flag adorns the stage, no doubt to the delight of many a stickler) and utility elevate what could have easily been a perfunctory box set. The scene shifts from meeting hall to "various locations around New York City" is accomplished by Yancey Dunham's lighting and the director's sound design. The costume designer is not credited, which is unfortunate. Such attention to detail should be acknowledged.

The ensemble delivers to the hilt. There is not an ounce of dramatic potential that goes untapped, and the level of commitment is at times overwhelming -- particularly in the heat of the union meeting, when voices pierce the darkness of the back of the house, heckling the corrupt union leader who is trying to steer his constituents away from a strike. Stand-out performances (from a host of stand-out performances) include Paul Gunning and Kristin Wiegand as a pathetic couple past the brink of poverty, barely holding on to what little they have. Anthony Gruppuso, in the thankless role of racketeer and company stooge Harry Fatt, gives dimension to an otherwise two-dimensional baddie. Elizabeth Bradshaw brings earnest, white-hot frustration to the role of Dr. Benjamin, in an inspired bit of gender-blind casting.

Clifford Odet's stark morality play still packs considerable punch, even if the propaganda value has worn thin over the decades. He drops us in the thick of a union meeting as it turns ugly, the narrative repeatedly shifts away to vignettes that reveal the harsh reality these cab drivers inhabit. The pacing is economical, pushing the audience toward the inevitable climax. It is an effort any playwright should be envious of, but it is not without its problems.

Waiting for Lefty is a production of Theatre West's "Chestnuts" program, an aptly named effort "dedicated to quality revivals of great plays." Indeed, Lefty is a quality revival. What does this mean for a seventy-five year-old polemic written in the midst of the Great Depression? The production is largely a museum piece. Dramatic moments that must have seemed startling and bold when first performed seem simplistic and hackneyed in today's ever changing, increasingly complex world. Odet's play at times has the narrative depth of a "Shock SuspensStory" comic book or "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln." Theatre West ably presents a living piece of theatre, despite the drawbacks of the material. The ensemble deserves high praise for breathing life into such stale lines. (Preaches one character: "One dollar buys ten loaves of bread, mister. Or one dollar buys nine loaves of bread and one copy of The Communist Manifesto. Learn while you eat!")

Waiting for Lefty is performed Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 2:00 pm through October 10th, 2010.

Theatre West is located at 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West in Los Angeles (Just over the hill, north of the Hollywood Bowl.)

General admission is $22. Theatre West has a range of prices depending on your age, military affiliation, and various and sundry other factors. Visit the company at http://www.theatrewest.org/ for the whole ticket price smorgasbord, as well as online ticketing.

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