By Carole Di Tosti . . .
Striking and revelatory in British playwright/director Alexander Zeldin’s Love, currently playing at the Park Avenue Armory, is how Zeldin alights on basic physiological human needs. He uses these to capture our attention and focus on families struggling to meet these needs in a public housing facility around Christmas time. As the characters’ stresses threaten to explode into acts of violence, Zeldin’s beautifully crafted work elicits our deepest empathy. With humor and pathos, Zeldin challenges us to answer a profoundly personal question: How would we react if we faced the circumstances these individuals face?
The production, which runs 90 minutes with no intermission, received acclaim in the UK and around the world before Zeldin’s North American premiere and debut at the Park Avenue Armory. Running until March 25, Love is a must-see for its incredible and uniquely configured naturalism, which mesmerizes and repels.
Love’s astounding performances, chillingly realistic sets, implosive and explosive dynamism carry through to the end and keep audience members (who the actors relate to at the conclusion) on the edge of their seats. As unique theater, Love hits it out of the ballpark, creating a live experience heavy with profound themes that quicken one’s conscience and touch one’s heart.
Though Love specifically takes place in the UK in the run-up to Christmas, and London is its most festive and glitteringly fashionable, the play’s realistic, drab, institutional setting is symbolically representational. It can be replicated in cities whose governments mandate temporary housing for the burgeoning homeless population. The homeless apply, are accepted, then invariably become lost and invisible in the shelter system.
Zeldin along with Natasha Jenkins’ set and costume design, helps delineate the characters who must call home the unwelcome, cold “living” space, whose common room needs more than a few coats of paint to cover the dirty, cream-colored walls. The group of strangers—a middle-aged man and his elderly mother; a young family with a baby on the way; a newly-arrived woman from Sudan; and a Syrian refugee—are forced together by their poverty.
The naturalistic set includes two long tables, folding chairs, a care-worn couch, a minimalistic, cheap kitchen and doors which lead to bedrooms for the families and two individuals, Tharwa (Hind Swareldahab) and Adnan (Naby Dakhli). Importantly, there is one barely functioning bathroom which has a toilet, sink and no shower.
As the families negotiate their assigned quarters, problems of privacy, use of kitchen and bathroom arise and cause tension as the individuals learn to “live” with each other. To have to get along, they apologize continually for invading space and not cleaning up after themselves. Ungenerous actions are trying under the most pleasant circumstances where there is no problem of homelessness. With the tension of destitution heaped upon the heads of the families, the anxieties, anger and fear create a pressure cooker environment.
Clearly, Zeldin’s indictment of how government systems don’t function except to demoralize, pathologize and blame the poor is one of the many themes we “get” by the play’s conclusion. Indeed, not providing incentives for developers to build enough subsidized housing creates the problem of low-grade emergency housing for the homeless, who have been evicted for whatever reason. The result is prison-like, demeaning and depressing shelters.
Though there are no bars, without money, bereft of many of their belongings because of eviction, these individuals are stuck. To leave, adults must deal with the Council, an administrative branch that services individuals according to a Byzantine, notoriously inefficient bureaucracy which often penalizes the lower classes for falling between the cracks with incomplete documentation or bad timing.
For example, we learn that the day Dean (Alex Austin) is scheduled to appear at his job center appointment, he, his pregnant partner Emma (Janet Etuk) and his two children from his first marriage, Jason (Oliver Finnegan) and Paige (Grace Willoughby) are evicted. When he tries to rectify the problem in order to collect the government check—which they need for food and rent to get back on their feet after losing their house—the officials fall back on procedure.
Sadly, they punish him with the rules and tell him to get a voucher for the food bank. Clearly, he doesn’t want charity. He wants his check. Dean must return to the job center to explain the situation, but Zeldin suggests that he and his family will continue to be stuck in the bureaucratic maze. Meanwhile, Emma will be forced to have her baby while living in this environment, which is her last wish.
Likewise, Colin (Nick Holder) and his sweet, elderly mom Barbara (the terrific Amelda Brown) who has severe digestive issues, are pushed off to the side as yet another invisible family whom the system doesn’t have the resources or means to help expeditiously. Colin tells Emma that they, too, will have to wait for housing like he and his mom have been waiting. When Emma says by law they aren’t supposed to wait beyond a specific time period, Colin reveals a terrible truth . . . he and Barbara have been waiting for housing for over a year.
When the circumstances reach a dramatic point which upsets everyone in embarrassment and humiliation, the fortitude, patience and concern for each other as human beings rise to the fore. Indeed, the marvelous cast shows us what the lives of the unseen and unheard are like when they nobly open their hearts and reach out for help from each other.
Developed by Zeldin in dialogue with individuals with first-hand accounts of homelessness, the heart-breaking, uplifting, authentic and intimate production resonates with powerful currency. Kudos to additional creatives Marc Williams (lighting design) and Josh Anio Grigg (sound design) and the superlative cast for fulfilling Alexander Zeldin’s majestical vision.
Love. Through March 25 at the Park Avenue Armory (643 Park Avenue between East 66th and 67th Streets). 90 minutes, no intermission. www.armoryonpark.org
Photos: Stephanie Berger
Cover Photo: Alex Austin and Janet Etuk