Dallas — It doesn’t get much more immersive than Upstart Productions’ Waiting for Lefty co-produced at Ash Studios in the blight-y shadow of Fair Park. Just a stones’ throw from a homeless tent city, the artist collective sits like a fortress on the borderlands. Director David Meglino’s staging compresses the action and the audience in a pressure cooker space until the only rational response is an emotional one. It’s agitprop theatre in an unabashed, authentic form. Admittedly, this is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it feels like history in the making.
After all, it was before.
Waiting for Lefty is one of those landmarks of theatre history. The grim realities of the Great Depression were calling for a change in all art forms. The legendary Group Theatre was answering by developing a new realism in acting. One of their members, Clifford Odets, hammered out a one-act play in three nights that gave voice to the unrest of the day. The story, told in vignettes, of taxi drivers deciding whether to strike was an instant, electric hit and marked a shift in what was being performed and how.
Upstart’s preshow meshes audience and actors improvising tense small talk before a union meeting. Ben Phillips plays Fatt, the boss who is trying to prod the meeting along despite the absence of the leader of the union committee: Lefty. Robert Gemaehlich plays Joe, the first person to speak in favor of strike. In order to explain why, director Meglino smoothly shifts the scene to Joe’s apartment and an altercation with his wife, Edna staunchly played by Steph Garrett. It’s a rough time for Joe as Edna rakes him over the coals for not doing right by their family. Garrett keeps up the pressure without losing a clear undercurrent of concern for her breadwinner. Gemaehlich runs out of places to go a little early in the scene, but the resolution has everyone rooting for him anyway.
In a similar display of the workingman being toyed with, Jack Bristol plays Miller, who is being offered a raise by the industrialist, Fayette, played with smooth ease by Chris Messersmith. All Bristol has to do is inform on his new co-worker as they develop poison gas. By this point in the evening, it’s clear that the characters and scenarios will be heavily weighted to one side. Playwright Odets opens it up a bit with the doomed love trio of Florence (Paola Martinez), her disapproving brother Irv (Zachary Valdez) and the-not-good-enough-because-he-drives-a-taxi Sid (Parker Fitzgerald). Oddly, though the themes here are the most easily translated to our times, it’s the one vignette of the evening that drags.
Electricity returns when the scene dissolves back into the present union meeting. Fatt brings up Tom Clayton (Robert Long) who was part of an unsuccessful strike. Just as Clayton is trying to dissuade the crowd from going through with the strike, he is torpedoed by a member of the crowd, Clancy (Gideon Swift). The aggressive Swift and hunted Long make the turn of events seem downright dangerous. Catching its breath, the show shifts back to a vignette of a Dr. Benjamin (Isaac Young) regrettably being called on the carpet by the sympathetic administrator, Dr. Barnes (Moira Wilson). Wilson works admirably to keep the progress of the evening from slipping from its height.
Another vignette has an actor, Phillips (Matthew Eitzen) being preyed upon by the stenographer/secretary (Sydney Rose Hover). She’s trying hard to win him to the communist cause. It’s a cautionary scene reminiscent of war department information films that warn of seductive double agents. Hover takes delight in her femme fatale pursuits.
The ace in the hole of the evening is Van Quattro as Agate. A fly in the ointment as the meeting has progressed with just slightly louder reactions to the goings on, Agate finally finds his feet and begins to argue in earnest. This is what Quattro does best. The sincerity and presence he brings makes some of the earlier vignettes look like dress-up playacting. The change in depth of acting must have been what seeing The Group Theatre’s production was like. His show-ending rant sways the crowd and rattles the racketeers. When the climactic moment of the show comes, it’s tempting to join in despite having no skin in the game.
And there’s the tricky part.
Is the show just an excellent timepiece or does it work as a piece of art for today? It definitely rouses the audience, but director Meglino has the cast rush out at the end, leaving a vacuum, which artistic director Joey Folsom has to attempt to direct into action with an epilogue. It’s a difficult job. Our anxieties have changed since the depression, as have the politics that take advantage of those anxieties. Our sentiment is so similar, yet our situations are so much more complicated.
Some in the audience yearned for the simplicity of the answer presented by the show: strike. However, when Folsom mentions that National Endowment for the Arts is on the chopping block, there was an audible inhale. Though the action of the play is only an hour long, with the cast waiting outside, it seems like the show isn’t over. The second act is the walk out into Ash Studio’s yard for conversation and contemplation.
That’s what makes this a piece of art for today.
Considering the future of federal arts funding, the more chilling question is what will be the art for tomorrow?
» For this weekend, Upstart Productions and new outfit The Basement are offering a special package. See Waiting for Lefty Thursday night, March 23, taking advantage of this company's PAY-WHAT-YOU-WANT pricing model and receive FREE admission to The Basement's Saturday, March 25, matinee of Kenneth Lonergan's This is Our Youth at the Stone Cottage in Addison.