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Theater J began the 1990s with high ambitions and many handicaps, and, as often happens with new ventures, by the time it had overcome the handicaps—by going Equity, getting its fiscal act together, and moving from a cramped town house to an elegant 250-seat theater—the loftiness of its vision had been compromised. Last year’s amateurish Noah’s Ark musical, Two by Two, would have represented a nadir of sorts had not the previous season’s sitcom, Nano & Nicki in Boca Raton, set a standard that was nearly impossible to live down to.

So it’s gratifying that Ari Roth, the company’s new artistic director, has not only re-aimed the troupe at the stars with his first production—an imaginative revamping of Clifford Odets’ classic strike play, Waiting for Lefty—but launched his tenure with attention to social as well as artistic issues. The evening isn’t flawless, but it’s stirring, vivid, and ambitious. And it suggests that the many fans of Potomac Theatre Project may finally have found a second outlet in this most political of cities for stage work that tackles politics head-on.

Odets’ playwriting career was immediately made for him in February 1935 by the first of what were intended as special, limited-audience matinees of Waiting for Lefty at Manhattan’s Civic Repertory Theater. With the Depression at its height and union leaders worried that strikes would embarrass pro-labor President Franklin Roosevelt, the issues raised by this leftist, frankly propagandistic play about the previous year’s taxi strike were clearly explosive. And the Group Theater production (directed by Sanford Meisner and featuring a very young Elia Kazan as a management spy) was, by all accounts, incendiary. The New York Times termed it “slashing…fiercely dramatic…one of the most thorough, trenchant jobs in the school of revolutionary drama.” The audience at the premiere cheered wildly through 22 curtain calls in a 45-minute standing ovation, and within a month the show had transferred to Broadway’s Longacre Theater for a run that would last 168 performances and make the reputations of everyone concerned, including the Group Theater, which went on to become one of the nation’s most influential theatrical institutions.

Odets’ rep lost its luster rather quickly. By the end of 1935, he was so disillusioned by the reception accorded two of his other plays, and by the derision heaped on Waiting for Lefty by some Communist groups, that he abandoned Broadway for Hollywood. Though he returned two years later with Golden Boy, which is generally regarded as his best play, he never really hit his stride again in the decade that followed, and when, in the ’50s, he named names to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, his ability to address audiences from any sort of moral high ground pretty much evaporated. By his death in 1963, he was writing for TV’s Pat Boone Show.

Waiting for Lefty didn’t fare much better. Though its proletarian attacks on fat cats, manipulative “Red boys,” and dictatorial union leaders were enormously popular during the Depression, they came to be regarded by comparatively prosperous postwar audiences as preachy and simplistic. There’s plenty of truth in that assessment.

What Roth and his director, Shira Piven, have recognized in Theater J’s cleverly updated staging is that the play’s empathetic characters and vernacular prose still count as sure assets. And by interpolating fresh material penned by Roth and others (including Saturday Night Live’s Adam McKay), they’ve found a way to connect Odets’ Depression-era agitprop with everything from last year’s D.C. janitors’ strike to what one character refers to as “El fuckin’ Niño.”

Much of this new material—which, while interspersed throughout the evening, is listed in the program as a separate play called Still Waiting—is based on interviews with local busboys, office workers, cabbies, and the like about their jobs. One character, played with quietly affecting fervor by Lucinda Hart-Gonzalez, has her whole nanny-to-janitor work history fleshed out in episodes that eventually lead her to a protest aimed last year at an event in the very Jewish Community Center in which the play is being performed.

That sort of touch is more in keeping with the proletarian spirit of the original than, say, the brief visit to Starbucks for a “Waiting for Latte” crack, but it’s hard to fault the creators for wanting to add levity to a show that builds its considerable credit with audiences almost entirely through earnestness. The weathered, proto-prole cast finds a bit of humor in Odets, but far more in the contemporary episodes—which makes sense from an audience standpoint, since Theater J’s comfortable, presumably liberal patrons are likely to have an easier time laughing at their own tribulations than at the trials of their grandparents.

Piven’s staging is restlessly inventive, and just a trifle scattered, but again, that’s in keeping with the piece’s agitprop impulses. With little more than 16 wooden chairs for props, she creates a germ-warfare lab, a hospital, a coffee shop, and a drab apartment from which all the furniture has been repossessed. And by sending the actors out to prowl the aisles, she turns the auditorium into not just the union hall Odets intended, but also into a TV studio where a smarmily capitalistic infomercial host can bait audience members into chanting “I’m better than you!” at their neighbors.

All of which is effectively disarming without quite mitigating the show’s tendency to proselytize and belabor its arguments. At roughly two-and-a-half hours, the evening’s a good 20 minutes too long. Still, it makes a better case than I’d have thought possible for a play that nearly all theater folks, and even many social activists, wrote off decades ago.

A literal translation for the title of Jacinto Benavente’s impassioned melodrama La Malquerida might be something like “The One Who Is Badly Loved.” But that would unnecessarily blunt the dramatic imagery in this tale of Raimunda, a proud woman who discovers raging passions under her own roof when her daughter’s fiancé is murdered. A peasant drama that shocked Madrid’s audiences when first produced in 1913, the play remains, in Gala Hispanic Theatre’s production, a robust, if somewhat lurid, portrait of a strong-willed family that’s flying apart.

Hugo Medrano’s staging, aided immeasurably by María Brito’s fiery performance as Raimunda, gives the dramatic fireworks their due and also takes the time to provide visual grace along the way. The director begins the evening with a painterly image of a girl in white—Raimunda’s daughter Acacia (Soledad Campos)—caught in moody contemplation on a staircase. And thereafter—especially at the beginnings of scenes—he seems to delight in lingering to let the audience appreciate, say, the simple beauty of a wood-trimmed room illuminated by firelight (persuasively solid architecture by Tony Cisek, flickering warmth by Ayun Fedorcha).

The performances from a large cast range from adequate to a good deal more than that, with a particularly striking turn by Angel Torres as a stepfather who owes a little something (and it’s not a comic something) to Woody Allen. But the evening’s emotional firepower is attributable, lock, stock, and barrel, to Brito, whose command of the stage seems to grow in direct proportion to the author’s attempts to batter her character to her knees. English translation is provided on headsets, but the gist of Brito’s performance is clear from body language and the play of emotions in her eyes.

There’s nothing remotely subtle about the evening’s soap-opera plotting, but La Malquerida makes it easy to understand the oft-maligned form’s appeal. In the premiere’s final moments, an unexpectedly brazen character twist provoked actual gasps from an audience that was clearly having a grand time.CP