In 1935, the Group Theatre staged a production of Waiting for Lefty by Clifford Odets, and its opening night has become an American theatre legend. The play exhorts “storm birds of the working class” to fight back against their capitalist oppressors; the actor Elia Kazan ended the show with a call to “strike” and the audience of well over a thousand joined in, screaming and cheering and foot-stomping for nearly an hour through 28 curtain calls.
Odets never managed to re-engender the raw emotion evoked by Lefty, which was his first staged play. Paradise Lost was written and produced in the same year, and it too portrays the Great Depression’s class struggles and financial damage. The play’s chief characters, though, are middle-class, unlike Lefty’s working-class taxi drivers. A gentle father struggles to keep his handbag business afloat, while his wife and grown children wrestle with the era’s hardships.
The play aspires to illustrate how relentless financial strain can compromise integrity and relationships, and the young people’s frustration is tangible: You can’t be a flapper when there’s no spree, or a rake when you’ve got no cabbage. But too much slang is slung, too much corn-cob philosophizing clogs the action. The characters’ problems seem caused more by their own failures than by extrinsic forces, so it’s not really a tragedy of the Depression. When the play opened, its final exhortation — “no man fights alone” — didn’t pull spectators to their feet like Lefty had. Odets soon went off to Hollywood.
Artists’ spirit of passionate social engagement, which engendered Odets’ dramas and the great Group Theatre, has faded as we have grown rich. Seattle’s Intiman Theatre makes persistent efforts to reincorporate that spirit; it is now showing Paradise Lost, hoping the play might translate as a timely parable for these recessionary days. A few of us have lately caught a whiff of the Depression’s pervasive fear and frustration, and Odets’ characters might strike a chord: the former business owner who has been homeless for seven years, the veteran who sleeps in strangers’ basements, the young couple unable to marry for lack of work. But today’s regional theaters are not an easy place for passionate engagement. The Group was a company of artists, not a play-making machine, and it spoke in a simpler time to a country in crisis. How many of Intiman’s spectators are communists, or proletarians, or union supporters?
I wish that director Dámaso Rodriguez had asked other questions, too, before raising the curtain. What kind of building are these people in, who lives where, how large is the kitchen? What accent is that, and why can’t the actress hold it? What inspires this scene’s depression or rumination? The big guy is imposing, but where’s his rage? Who’s handing money to whom, for what purpose, and what happens to it? What’s up with that deconstructed piano? Answers are not forthcoming; confusion ensues despite two intermissions for reflection.
Toward the end a couple of manic fellows pop up — “excuse my dust” — seemingly from some Beckett show next door, and they give a glimpse of how this defunct play could be revived. The insurance-fire man, the Irish political operator, all the parade of characters who come through that upstage door could entertain us and keep the pace up if they played like Restoration comedians. Odets was inspired by the plays of Chekhov, whose philosophizing country doctors and stagnant families facing ruin are echoed here in a gaudier American vein; earnest stagings with nary a laugh in sight have spoiled many Chekhov productions, too.
The Intiman has vigorously shared the unfolding narrative of the departure of Bart Sher as Artistic Director and the arrival of Kate Whoriskey as his partner and replacement. This has involved some trumpeting of Paradise Lost as the first show under her artistic direction. Its opening coincides with another in a series of press releases which report that Sher has again failed to fulfill a commitment he had made to the theater, which is each time presented as a good thing: now, because Whoriskey turns out not to need him as co-artistic director. I hope and believe that she will guide the Intiman more actively than the post-Tony-Award Sher, and that her disappointing launch with Paradise Lost turns out to be an aberration. The Intiman is a vital local theatrical resource that can do better.
If you go: Paradise Lost, Tuesdays-Sundays through April 25, Intiman Theatre, 201 Mercer St., Seattle, 206-269-1900. Tickets cost $25-$61 and can be purchased online.
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