What is it about the homeless that inspires such groundbreaking theater? Last year, it was “Addressless,” digital theater with gameplay. Now, “Love,” something completely different, an intimate theatrical experience at the cavernous Park Avenue Armory, where we spend ninety minutes in the day-in/day-out lives of eight characters staying at a homeless shelter in the U.K. The dramas are small but subtly devastating:
Colin, a man in his fifties, washes his mother Barbara’s hair in the sink – not really a kitchen sink, because there is no proper kitchen – using dishwashing liquid. This is supposed to be a “temporary housing facility,” in which nobody stays more than six weeks. But they’ve been there a year.
Dean doles out a microwaved package of rice to his partner Emma, who is 33 weeks pregnant, and his two school-age children Paige and Jason, telling them he has already eaten. But when Emma says she’s full, Dean gobbles up the leftover ravenously. Unable to afford an increase in the rent on their flat, the family was evicted on the very day that Dean was scheduled for an appointment at the local jobs center, As a result he missed the appointment, and their benefits were cut off.
Tharwa, a woman from the Sudan, keeps to herself, says little, keeps on trying to make a call on her cell phone. Then a newcomer, Adnan, arrives at the shelter, a refugee from Syria. They soon discover they both speak Arabic, and suddenly Tharwa comes alive, chattering away excitedly in Arabic.
Their conversation is not translated, and indeed it might be difficult for the average New York theatergoer to understand the other characters completely, given their British accents. But there isn’t that much dialogue, and you don’t need to understand every word of it to understand their lives — how they are trying to keep their dignity, and offer each other a little humanity, even though circumstances have forced them to live under stress and in limbo, with little privacy.
Writer and director Alexander Zeldin tells us in a program note that he met with families who had lived through such experiences; he didn’t just interview them but involved them in workshops and improvisations to come up with his script.
They’re not the ones performing in “Love” at the Park Avenue Armory. All of the cast members are professional actors (The actress who portrays Tharwa, though, Hind Swareldahab, is a Sudanese refugee who began her professional acting career in 2016 in the original National Theatre production of “Love” in London.) But there feels little space between the actors and the characters they are portraying, as if they are living this experience. This is in part because of Zeldin’s script, which provides glimpses more than plot; it is not overly sentimental (yes, the play unfolds during a few days around Christmas time, and the kids both put up sad Christmas decorations and rehearse for a nativity scene — but it’s very low-key), nor is it overly ugly (although there is one hard-to-take scene of incontinence.) Natasha Jenkins’ set design helps – a drab institution, with a lone tree beating against a lone, out-of-the-way window (Her costume design allows for characters to assert a little individuality as if in defiance of their surroundings.) The believable lived-in effect is also due to Zeldin’s direction, whose naturalistic rhythms require a slow pace. As a result, “Love” might not be for everybody. I suspect it’s a less effective experience for those who sit way in the back, rather than in among the characters, as if in the shelter ourselves.. But for those open to a different kind of theater (and sitting up front), the love really does come through.
Park Avenue Armory through March 25
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $39 – $154
Written and directed by Alexander Zeldin
Set and Costume Design by Natasha Jenkins, Lighting Design by Marc Williams, Sound Design by Josh Anio Grigg, Movement by Marcin Rudy
Cast: Alex Austin as Dean, Amelda Brown as Barbara, Naby Dakhli as Adnan, Janet Etuk as Emma, Amelia Finnegan as Paige, Oliver Finnegan as Jason, Nick Holder as Colin, Hind Swareldahab as Tharwa, and Grace Willoughby as Paige at alternate performances
Photos by Stephanie Berger