In “queens,” the latest resonant, heartfelt play by Martyna Majok, a Polish immigrant woman named Renia reigns over a crumby basement in the New York City borough of Queens, but she sees it as her home, her world, and her salvation.
Renia (Ana Reeder) could be a cousin to Darja, another Polish immigrant woman, who was the central character of Majok’s acclaimed 2015 play Ironbound — and, like Ironbound, queens shifts back and forth in time, revealing a complicated portrait bit by bit.
But, unlike Ironbound,, queens is not just a portrait of one woman, but of a community of women, mostly newly arrived in America, who pass through this cluttered basement, with nowhere else to live, from 2001 (shortly after September 11th) to 2017.
The first scene takes place in 2017, when Inna, an immigrant from Ukraine (Sarah Tolan-Mee) asks Reina whether there is a space in the basement to let, and then punches Reina in the face. Inna assumed that Reina was the mother who abandoned her to immigrate to America. We eventually learn that Reina did indeed in effect abandon a daughter, which is one reason why she offers Inna the place, even after being assaulted.
The next scene is a flashback to 2001 and Reina is herself seeking to rent space in the basement.
Seven actresses portray some dozen characters from seven countries. And each of the characters talks about other immigrant women who have lived in this basement. They speak at times in Polish or Spanish or Ukrainian but mostly in fractured English.
New women are constantly arriving and leaving. They are wary of one another, even as they find solace in their company. For a goodbye party for Isabel from Honduras (Nicole Villamil), Aamani from Afghanistan (Nadine Malouf) unearths five different bottles of liquor left in the basement by former tenants, each with a story that Aamani relates (“Karina. Who taught two babies on Park Avenue to walk. And one to talk.”) The women often leave much of their stuff behind, which is one of several telling metaphors for their lives as immigrants. As Inna complains: “What this means, Better Life, if you gotta leave everything to come?” Laura Jellinek’s set, with the ceiling lowered before our eyes, emphasizes how restricted their lives become.
Majok is unsentimental in her portrayal of these characters, who are not always likeable. But she helps us understand them, these ambitious, intelligent, often witty people who would be treated like Queens if the world were fairer; instead they struggle even to be lower case. queens lets us see what drove each of these women to come to America, and what many sacrificed by being here. In the process, the play offers something of a crash course in immigration issues.
Yet that understanding only goes so far. Many of the choices by the playwright and director Danya Taymor as the play unfolds make the audience work harder than we should at figuring out who is who and what is going on. There are no subtitles when the characters are speaking a foreign language; the shifts in time are accompanied by shifts in location – we are in Honduras one scene, and the Ukraine another; most confusingly, there is a parade of new characters who make brief appearances over the course of the nearly three hours and two intermissions. The talented cast does what it can to make these women memorable, but they can’t completely compensate for the decision to crowd the canvas with sketches rather focusing on a few full portraits.
Still, queens is an admirable production at Lincoln Center’s LCT3 Clare Tow Theater, which aims to offer fresh voices. In this case, that doesn’t just mean the playwright’s. As with Majok’s recent play Cost of Living, about two disabled characters and their caretakers, queens presents voices of individuals we rarely hear on stage.
queens is on stage at Lincoln Center’s Clare Tow Theater (150 West 65th Street on the Lincoln Center campus, New York, N.Y. 10023) through March 25, 2018. Tickets and details
queens by Martyna Majok. Directed by Danya Taymor. Featuring Jessica Love, Nadine Malouf, Ana Reeder, Andrea Syglowski, Zuzanna Szadkowski, Sarah Tolan-Mee, and Nicole Villamil. Sets by Laura Jellinek, costumes by Kaye Voyce, lighting by Matt Frey, and sound by Stowe Nelson. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.