Say this for Alexander Zeldin’s LOVE now at the Park Avenue Armory in a production that started life at the National Theatre of Great Britain: his heart is in the right place. In this second play in his Inequality Trilogy, he has tackled British homelessness that also beset 70,000 New Yorkers nightly who sleep in the municipal shelter system. Based on interviews with individuals with first-hand experience of these temporary housing facilities and workshopped with them, the resulting play has a documentary feel to it. The actors do not seem to be acting but are convincing enough to be actual residents.
The play, however, is very untheatrical in covering three days in one temporary housing facility in Britain. The events are very small and we only witness meals that don’t go far enough, lines for the one bathroom, children having to do without things that their parents’ can’t afford, fear over residents that are of foreign nationalities, etc. We also overhear phone calls to welfare workers who seem very uncaring as they play strictly by the rules which often do not apply.
All of this is performed in what seems like real time: a complete meal, then taking the children to school, etc. It is like watching cinema verité: there is no doubt that it is very real and true to life while we are watching it, but none of it seems to be shaped into theatrical form. Much of this is repeated as the same things are part of the daily routine, which may be the point; every day is another small battle to survive. We watch two families: out of work 50-ish Colin and his elderly mother Barbara who seems to be aging very fast and becoming incontinent. They lost their home 12 months ago and have been awaiting a placement ever since.
Then there is the family of Dean Gray, an apprentice electrician currently out of work, in the shelter with his two school-age children Jason (12) and Paige (8) and his current partner Emma, very pregnant and a caring stepmother to his children. They have been in the shelter six weeks which is supposed to be the maximum by law before being given permanent housing and Emma does not want their baby to be born here. The children are continually being told by their parents to come back in their room and not bother the other residents. It is the last few weeks before Christmas and Paige wants to be able to rehearse her speech for the school pageant which her brother distains.
We hear Dean lie about having had his dinner already and the phone call to his welfare worker that informs him that since he missed a job appointment on the day they were evicted from their flat, he loses a month of benefits. There also two single Middle Easterners, Tharwa, a mother without her children from Sudan, and Adnan, a man with a limp from Syria, but since they usually speak in Arabic (without supertitles) we are not made aware of their stories.
We learn about needing to take toilet paper with you to a trip to the loo, and the arguments over to whom a cup belongs and using a shelf in the refrigerator. When their money runs out, the food must come from the food bank if you have a voucher. We hear of hours spent on lines for appointments with welfare workers for jobs and separate lines for housing. In the end none of these people have received any help from their counselors. It is all very upsetting to watch for middle-class audience members who are insulated by their incomes from these problems but it all is so low-key without any emotional high points that it is not as effective as it might be. There is also the use of British vernacular that will make some of the dialogue incomprehensible to American audiences.
So brightly lit by Marc Williams as to suggest a hospital ward, Natasha Jenkins’ set is extremely evocative: a large common room also used as a kitchen with dingy yellow walls and institutional doorways to three rooms we can see, although when the doors are open we can’t see much of the bedrooms other than that they are small and cramped. At one end of the room are a sink, microwave, and small refrigerator. The door to the toilet is at the other end of the room. Trees can be periodically heard knocking against a high window on the far side wall. Only one picture decorates any of the walls. There are no pay phones and the denizens must have minutes on their personal devices. Some audience members sit on the stage area which almost intrudes on the action for the residents of the shelter – but not quite. The costumes by Jenkins are pitch perfect making us think of items bought in flea markets by people cannot afford much else.
Under the author’s direction, the cast is uniformly excellent. Alex Austin’s Dean remains cool in the face of adversity while Janet Etuk’s Emma loses her temper but then is extremely apologetic. The children are very believable in the way of recalcitrant adolescents: Oliver Finnegan’s Jason is a very taciturn youth, while Amelia Finnegan (alternating with Grace Willoughby) as Paige is often defiant but eventually does what she is asked to do. As Colin, Nick Holder makes him rather simpleminded as well as heedless and inattentive; Amelda Brown as his elderly mother Barbara is heartbreaking as she begins losing her memory as well as her mobility. The budding friendship between her and Paige is quite beautiful.
While Hind Swareldahab as Tharwa and Naby Dakhli as Adnan do not reveal as much speaking Arabic most of the time, they do create definite personalities. While Dakhli’s Adnan never argues when told off by the Caucasian inmates, Swareldahab’s Tharwa stands up for her rights, particularly in the incident when she thinks Emma is using her cup – which turns out to be her mistake. At the end, little has changed and this daily existence continues for these inmates.
Alexander Zeldin’s LOVE seems much longer than it actually is due to much silence and the reenactment of everyday tasks usually skipped onstage in plays. There is little dialogue and what there is tends to be rather ordinary talk about daily living. The play mainly works as a sort of experiment in the way that the Federal Theatre Project dramatized burning issues in the 1930’s. However, LOVE is a valuable record of life in a shelter using a documentary approach that is so real that it makes us feel like voyeurs. While the title remains unexplained, by the end each of the adult characters get to say it as a reminder that they have the backs of the others.
LOVE (through March 25, 2023)
Park Avenue Armory and A Zeldin Company Production
Original production by National Theatre of Great Britain, in co-production with Birmingham Repertory Theatre, and produced for European touring by Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe and A Zeldin Company
Drill Hall of the Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Avenue at 67th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-933-5812 or visit http://www.armoryonpark.org
Running time: 95 minutes without an intermission