Waiting For Lefty (Quintessence): On the side of angels but not art

Ensemble members of WAITING FOR LEFTY at Quintessence. Photo By Linda Johnson.

“We got the blues, Babe, the 1935 blues.”

Quintessence Theatre Group is running Clifford Odet’s Waiting For Lefty until Feb 12. This show has history. Odets, a voice for his disinherited generation was born in Philadelphia. He later moved to NYC where Harold Clurman, co-founder of New York’s famous Group Theater, anointed Waiting For Lefty “The birth cry of the 30’s.” The premiere had 28 curtain calls. 

Celebrated stage director, Elia Kazan, noted that “the balcony, like a Niagara, seemed to roar down into the audience below. A cry of the soul.” Soon it was banned in Union Square, Tokyo, Moscow, and Johannesburg. 

Times change, and in 1965 Martin Luther King, Jr. noted that this labor movement, IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts of the U.S. Parent organization: AFL-CIO), was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress.”  Celebrated hard-line critic John Simon, however, wrote that this “Drama looked like a fine crusading weapon to 30’s playwrights, and though they were on the side of the angels, they were unfortunately not on the side of art.”

I have to concur with John Simon. Here in Philadelphia in 2023 the show is essentially static as a row of men sit all the way across the back of the stage. Odets’ dialogue is strong and crackling clever, but his characters, other than a couple of love interests, are more ideas than they are people. The actors, however, do a fine job. The union’s chairman, Lefty, is missing. Yet interest in Lefty seems to take a back seat as the seated union men watch center stage love interests. There are two couples up front. One woman wants her husband to start a union. The other woman wants to get married. Through all this, the men want to STRIKE! This is the revolutionary fervor of the 30s. Looking back at this neglected classic, you might wonder, why Lefty, why now?  

Then I thought about the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  Our own Art Museum had a strike last October. These current unionized workers want to use the momentum from their new contract “to build a better museum from the inside out.” 

[Quintessence Theatre Group at the Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Avenue] January 18 – February 12, 2023; quintessencetheatre.org

Director: Kyle Haden
Ensemble: Monroe Barrick, Rachel Brodeur, Lee Thomas Cortopassi, Doug Harris, Michael Liebhauser, Daniel Melo, Kimie Muroya, Katherine Perry, Buzz Roddy, Angelica Santiago

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