Those politicians who are quick to declaim “class warfare” whenever a legislator wonders why people making a lot of money can’t pay higher taxes to help bring down the deficit or fund services for the poor have no idea what class resentment sounds like. We’ve come so far from real animosity between the rich and the poor that the mildest expression of concern about growing income inequality brings forth a torrent of rebuke from people who see themselves as the defenders of capitalism. If you want to hear someone urging real class war, go to the Portmanteau Theatre’s production of Clifford Odets’s agitprop play, “Waiting for Lefty,” at Hartley House, 413 West 46th St., in Manhattan. Written in 1935, “Waiting for Lefty” is set in a union hall on the eve of a taxi strike. Its denunciation of the balabotim, or the bosses, is clarion strong. Odets doesn’t mince words; the bosses are bloodsuckers whose only desire is to drive working men into the ground. “Something wants us to crawl in the dark,” one of the characters says, and it’s not hard to figure out what that something is. It’s capitalism.
ReviewIn 1935, the situation in the United States was so grim that many sensible people felt that American capitalism was doomed. The system had led the country into an economic ditch, but what was even more galling was that the suffering wasn’t shared. “This world is supposed to be for all of us,” a character states, but that’s not what Odets saw around him. “Lefty” was his first play to be produced, and it was staged by the famous Group Theater, which had been founded specifically to present plays about social issues.
Hartley House was built in the 1880s as a settlement house, and it’s a perfect setting for this production. Actors sit among the audience in the hall, calling out to the speakers at the front. The men are waiting for their leader, Lefty Costello, and in the meantime listen to their union’s equivocating leader, Harry Fatt, try to convince them that striking is counterproductive. The play is constructed as a series of short vignettes with different characters, skipping from one of the cabbies and his desperate wife to an industrialist who tries to convince a young chemist to spy on another scientist to a young woman who can’t marry her beau because he doesn’t make enough money to support them. The characters are sketched in the broadest strokes, since characterization isn’t the point. Odets uses the vignettes to expound on a variety of social ills – the war machine, the way the struggle for survival debases ordinary people, anti-Semitism (one of the vignettes concerns a brilliant young doctor who loses his job because he’s Jewish), and the need for workers to support each other. This isn’t a subtle argument about economic forces impacting people’s lives. On the contrary, Odets had a specific political position and he had no doubt about its merit.
The whole play takes less than an hour, and Odets crammed a huge amount of material into that time. Director Ilana Becker uses the space in the hall and an upstairs balcony effectively and things zip along. A young cast does what it can to give the speeches some individuality, and Ron Scott is especially stirring as Agate, a man who urges the workers to strike.
From this vantage point, after the colossal failure of communism in the Soviet Union and China, Odets’s arguments for the solidarity of the working class can seem naÃ¯ve. But his outrage at the injustice that unfettered capitalism invariably brings along with profit is just as timely now as it was then. Sometimes, it does a body good to be outraged.