“Waiting for Lefty” by Clifford Odets at Theatre 9/12

While fortunes amass today in Seattle and elsewhere, this is also a time when those left out of the boom are even more busted than ever. For some it is indeed a return to the 1930s. “Waiting for Lefty” the Clifford Odets 1935 play about striking taxicab drivers in New York explores the fate of the working class in tough times. It is both dated yet remarkably pertinent today, and Theatre9/12’s powerful take on it is bound to move you and certainly cause you to question the system as it works in our time.

Odets, like so many other intellectuals, was a Communist during the Depression years. His hard-hitting social protest plays received much favorable attention and greatly influenced the playwrights who followed.

This production begins on a crowded dance floor where energetic couples are doing the Charleston. The mood is gay, enthusiastic. Then the lights go out. When they come back on only a few couples dance, well not really dance, simply move in an exhausted, almost crippled manner. You quickly understand that this is one of those marathons we read about in history books. Couples subject themselves to this debilitating and demoralizing exercise because there is prize money for the last couple standing, and they all desperately need the money. Jobs are few. Pay has been cut back. Life is hard. There’s no safety net. What better way to begin this thought provoking play?

Director Charles Waxberg has staged it in the round with action in front of, behind and above the audience members thus, immersing them in the goings-on. And by placing the corrupt leader of the taxi drivers union, Fatt (aptly named) and his gun-toting henchman above the rest of the players, their corrosive presence is inescapable.

Photo by Michael Brunk / nwlens.com

Photo by Michael Brunk / nwlens.com

Theatre 9/12 is known for the quality of its acting and this production is no exception. But amazingly one of the most powerful performers is Michael C. Robinson as Fatt’s henchman. He never says a word. For most of the play he just sits next to Fatt, toothpick dangling from his mouth, eyes alert but veiled, a rifle hung on his shoulder. He personifies evil.

Odets created the play with vignettes that speak to the injustices of the difficult Depression years: impoverished married couples, unethical medical practices, corrupt union leaders, frustrated lovers who can’t afford marriage, soulless capitalism. There’s no subtlety here. The characters are stereotypes; the message is pounded home. It would be written with more nuance today, but this is a piece of theatre history. It’s fascinating to see the agitprop of the ’30s, especially when it is presented so successfully and is so pertinent to contemporary times

Through Feb. 20 at Trinity Parish Hall, 609 8th Ave. and James St., Seattle. For reservations 206 332-7905 or www.Theatre912.com. This show is offered as “pay what you can afford.

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