by Samuel L. Leiter
One thing Polish-born playwright Martyna Majok’s terrifically acted, verbally charged, but dramatically slack Ironbound—a coproduction of the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater and Women’s Project Theater—makes clear is how different are the experiences of immigrant Polish cleaning ladies. Ironbound’s Darja, played with searing intensity by Marin Ireland (replacing Gina Gershon, who originally was announced), is a victim of marital/romantic conflicts, familial dysfunction, and economic distress, not to mention her own ironbound personality. Carless, she’s forced to wait for a bus late at night from a factory in an Elizabeth, New Jersey, industrial wasteland. Although Darja lives in Newark, its eponymous Ironbound section—never mentioned—is more a metaphor than somewhere on a map.
On the other hand, the Polish lady who cleans my house every two weeks arrives in a big, black SUV, has a Polish university degree in computer science, and cleans houses to supplement her fulltime job as an IT specialist. It’s true, of course, that none of this came easy. Nor does anything come easy for the less accomplished Darja, whose resilience the play portrays, just as it does the bad choices she tends to make. Like Godot, the bus may never come, but, at the end, a beam of hope can be glimpsed down the road.
More a character study than a conventionally structured play, Ironbound (originally produced by Washington, D.C.’s Round House Theatre) has five time-hopping scenes; it begins in 2014, goes back to 1992, moves forward to 2014, shifts to 2006, and returns to 2014. Apart from the program saying “TIME 1992, 2006, and 2014,” you’re on your own in figuring out which is which.
Everything occurs late at night at a barren bus stop designed by Justin Townsend with an earthen upstage berm, some chain-link fencing, and a single bench; despite Townsend’s atmospheric lighting, the impression is of relentless black. Why not a few more scenic markers for variety? In contrast to the play’s naturalistic look, dialogue, and behavior, though, Darja’s perpetual presence here doesn’t always jibe; it’s yet another metaphor, one that grows progressively duller.
In the first of the three 2014 scenes, the feisty Darja confronts Tommy (Morgan Spector), her postal worker boyfriend and live-in lover, about his serial infidelity; she also tries to get him to pay for a car so she can search for her drug addict son, Aleks, who stole hers. Aleks, reprobate that he is, is Darja’s most precious possession, the only thing she can truly call her own. The flashback to 1992 reveals the dreams she and Maks (Josiah Bania), her first husband (Aleks’s father), another Polish immigrant, had for material prosperity. Crazily enough, Maks’s dream took him to Chicago, without Darja (her choice), to sing the blues.
Life after Maks never did improve for Darja. Husband number two, her boss, was a wife batterer. In the least plausible scene Darja, beaten and unable to find shelter at the deserted factory, is sleeping on the bus stop ground when she’s spotted by a prep school student named Vic (Shiloh Fernandez). This bling-wearing, rapping, slang-spewing gay hustler in baggy hip-hop gear (overdone by designer Kaye Voyce) turns out to be the most decent guy in the play. (His concern for her contrasts with that of Darja’s son, about Vic’s age.) The scene is amusing, even affecting, but totally unbelievable. Finally, Tommy and Darja (who’s got her eye on getting insurance for her son) try once more to negotiate a future for themselves.
Under Daniella Topol’s clear-eyed direction, all the performances are rich, the salty, and sometimes funny, dialogue has the snap and crackle of working-class and broken English (Charlotte Fleck is the expert dialect coach), and Marin Ireland, on stage throughout, offers a rainbow of strengths and vulnerabilities. Dramatic development, however, takes a back seat to character depiction, and the effect is more a sequence of lively scenes than an emotionally absorbing or very convincing play about an immigrant’s struggle to survive.
Ironbound. Through April 10 at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater (224 Waverly Place, between West 11th and Perry Streets). www.rattlestick.org
Photos: Sandra Coudert