“Waiting for Lefty” and “Severance” bookend economic hardships of the past and present

Michael Lewis (Harry Fatt) is the union leader in WAITING FOR LEFTY by Clifford Odet onstage thru March 5 in Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Nafe Katter Theatre. (Gerry Goodstein/Connecticut Repertory Theatre).

Connecticut Repertory Theatre presented a full night of theatre Thursday evening by pairing the classic agitation propaganda play “Waiting for Lefty,” by Clifford Odets, with a new play, “Severance,” written by University of Connecticut theatre studies alumnae Levi Alpert.

In a series of vignettes about the characters of the union that details their pasts, the struggles of the present and uncertainty of the future, “Waiting for Lefty” concerns itself with a union of taxi drivers in the throes of The Great Depression era.

The stories construct a wide ranging view on many kinds of lives, from Joe (Michael Bobenhausen) and Edna (Natalia Cuevas) on the brink of separation to a scientist named Miller (Darren Lee Brown) who would rather dig graves before compromising his morality under coercion to create something deadly in return for a substantial raise in his salary.

“Waiting for Lefty” unifies the many different dynamics of people’s lives under frightful socio-political conditions, who collectively must find the courage to go on strike against the influential and corrupt discouragement from the union boss Harry Fatt (Micahel Lewis).

Ben Senkowski and the cast prepare to strike in WAITING FOR LEFTY by Clifford Odets onstage thru March 5 in Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Nafe Katter Theatre. (Gerry Goodstein/Connecticut Repertory Theatre)

The pressure to decide mounts as desperation and fear start to take hold of the characters trying to make ends meet. The play depicts the stories of people facing threats to their integrity and identities as the mounting pressures of The Great Depression era bare down on them.

This idea isn’t a far cry from four years ago and the recession making the timing of “Waiting for Lefty” topical and pointed.

“It’s like all great plays, it is of its own time but it is also timeless for sure,” said Michael Lewis in an interview with The Daily Campus last week.

“When Odets wrote ‘Waiting for Lefty,’ it was intended as a curtain riser, a short play preempting a main act,” said new CRT artistic director, Michael Bradford in his opening remarks to the audience on opening night Thursday evening.

In a press release Bradford, who directed both plays, said “I asked Levi to consider writing a ‘curtain closer’ that brought us a little closer to our present lives as a way to look at how wonderfully far and sadly how little we have ‘traveled.”

“Severance” centers on a tech company, a CEO and board of directors as well as a group of working class individuals at one of the company’s warehouses.

Samuel Kebede  and Shavana Clarke  in SEVERANCE by Levi Alpert (BA Theatre Studies ’15) onstage thru March 5 in Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Nafe Katter Theatre. (Gerry Goodstein/Connecticut Repertory Theatre)

Samuel Kebede  and Shavana Clarke  in SEVERANCE by Levi Alpert (BA Theatre Studies ’15) onstage thru March 5 in Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Nafe Katter Theatre. (Gerry Goodstein/Connecticut Repertory Theatre)

The board of directors had the performativity of a Greek chorus. Present in every scene, the board is a disconcerted group looming in the background, staring into smartphones and tablets as the warehouse workers deal with potentially becoming homeless. In the boardroom scenes their movement and dialogue was synchronized, robotic and absent of empathy.

“I think Severance speaks to peoples anxieties in the job market. I think the board of directors is a comment on the synchronization of what we think companies do, commenting on the potential dehumanization that some decisions in board rooms that don’t necessarily translate into favorable outcomes,” said political science Ph.D. candidate, Timothy Bussey.

The company, Pantech, is the quintessential corporation one might imagine in the corporate bubble, as they lay off thousands of workers only to summarily take egregious bonus checks.

The decision to shut down a Pantech warehouse where the characters Al (Samuel Kebede), Jackie (Shavana Clarke) and Grover Alexander (Scott Redmond) was the central action of the play, a reminder that not too long ago, headline news was corporate CEO’s laying off workers and taking home bonus checks seemingly immune and disconcerted with anyone outside of the one percent bubble.

Opposite the board is Shelly Adams (Lily Ling), an idealist entity that showcases that she is someone actually concerned with the lives of those in the warehouse. She is a contrast to the board, however finds herself on their radar in the course of the play, eventually ending up in a dilemma that could compromise her own sense of self.

The parallel with the realities of the recession cannot help but be noticed. The juxtaposition of the corporate class and working class represented in the play wasn’t a re-hash of what many have already experienced and seen, but a thorough comment on the dynamics of that disconnection.

“I felt that the two plays connected well. I saw a progression from the state of unions in the 30’s and 40’s depicted in Lefty and the economic disparity then, and the form it has taken today, like during the recession,” said comparative literature Ph.D. candidate, Arnab Roy.

“Waiting for Lefty” and “Severance” will run until March 5. Tickets are available at crt.uconn.edu, or by contacting the box office at 860-486-2113.


Matthew Gilbert is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at matthew.gilbert@uconn.edu.