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Open: 06/09/10- Close: 06/26/10 Waiting For Lefty
Reviewed for By: Heather Violanti

Get to the theatre early.  The pre-show is the best part of Seeing Place Theater’s earnest but uneven Waiting for Lefty.  Clifford Odets’ 1935 play brought earthy agitprop to American theater, making an impassioned plea for workers’ rights while shaking audiences out of their passivity. Just 72 minutes long, Lefty poses as an actual union meeting, with the audience becoming participants as much as observers.  Directors Reesa Graham and Brandon Walker expand this conceit into a wry Brechtian pre-show.  The ensemble, dressed in 1930s clothes, mill around the empty stage or lounge in the audience, whistling, arguing, reading newspapers, looking alternately bored or anxious.  They’re all waiting for Lefty, the union leader who can inspire his fellow cabdrivers to strike for better wages, even against the bullying tactics of company men like Harry Fatt (the sardonic and thin Tyler Moss) and his gun-toting cohort (an intimidating Greg Phelps).

In this production’s darkly funny pre-show, Fatt combs the audience, asking members for their names and why they’re here.

 “We here to see the show” someone said.
“A show?  What do you think this is?  A play?” Fatt snapped back. 

The theatre buzzes with energy, even if it occasionally veers to the twee.  These people, after all, are clearly actors, dressed in the clothes of 75 years ago, their studied New Yawk accents straight out of a James Cagney film, their anger a little too politely held in check before the “real” show begins.

Still, it’s a provocative opening.  Once Odets’ actual play starts, the momentum fizzles.   This is particularly evident in the two-person vignettes, the scenes that show the taxi drivers at home, or at their former jobs.  These masterful scenes, meant to demonstrate how injustice bleeds into every aspect of society, feel strangely turgid here.  There no heat, no thrill, no danger, not even when everyman Sid (an earnest Brandon Walker) says to his “girl,” Florrie (a passionate Norah Elise Johnson), “Baby, I get like thunder in my chest when we’re together.”

You don’t really get thunder in your chest from this Waiting for Lefty, but there are flashes of lightning.  A scene where a chemist (played with righteous anger by Steven Beckingham) finds himself recruited to make a new, highly profitable poison gas still stings in an era obsessed with biological warfare.  Rabble-rouser Agate Keller (searingly portrayed by David Arthur Bachrach) has a prescient invective against war, in which he decries the philosophy of “Take the gun and kill the slob.  Kill him like a hero. Kill him like an American.”

Rich in period detail, and lovingly if not always convincingly acted, this production displays an informed affinity for its subject.  The company have clearly done their research (read those helpful program notes), and they clearly love this play.  Now, they must find a way to harness their energy and sustain it through an entire performance.

American Theatre Of Actors : 314 West 54th Street