By: Samuel L. Leiter
March 3, 2023: As I left the Park Avenue Armory after seeing British playwright-director Alexander Zeldin’s acclaimed, civically responsible drama, LOVE, I couldn’t help overhearing another theatregoer say to her friend, “That was so powerful.” This is a feeling many in the audience seemed to share as they gave the cast a standing ovation minutes earlier. The play’s subject of homelessness is certainly powerful, being as familiar to people in England (where the production originated in 2016 at the National Theatre) and America, as in the various European countries in which Love—part of a trilogy of socially conscious plays called Inequities—has been seen.
Even after leaving this Park Avenue theatre one need not go far to see the problem up close and personal. The program (one quarter the size of what the Armory usually provides) offers devastating statistics on New York’s homeless crisis.
However, whether Mr. Zeldin has translated the innate power of his subject matter into equally impressive drama is up for debate. Many viewers forcibly insist he has; a few, however, myself among them, feel quite the opposite. This, to a great extent, is owing to his dramaturgic method.
LOVE is staged in hyper-realistic fashion, intended to give us the sense of being flies on the cold, looming walls of a common room in a UK homeless shelter, which designer Natasha Jenkins (who also did the costumes) places on the expansive stage of the armory’s ginormous Wade Thompson Drill Hall. Viewing it from the towering bleachers, where I sat, as opposed to up close, objectifies the experience, as if the action is being witnessed from a lab perspective.
Seated on the stage in an area between those walls and the 650 or so spectators watching from the bleachers, with several rows of risers to either side, are about 75 audience members, among whose chairs the actors occasionally wander, once even reaching out for physical contact. Four doors punctuate the worn, pale beige and gray walls, one leading to a bathroom at our left. Two are in the upstage wall, and a double door at our right leads to elsewhere in the facility. Two long folding tables, with plastic and steel chairs, occupy the stage proper, and a kitchen area with working sink is at our right. Overhead, fluorescent lights are either dimmed, popped on full blast, or flickered in Marc Williams’s spot-on design.
One room belongs to a man named Colin (Nick Holder) and his gentle, dementia-ridden mother, Barbara (Amelda Brown). As embodied by Mr. Holder, Colin is a burly, T-shirt-wearing, tattooed, Cockney-accented man, perhaps 60 or so. When he and Barbara first appear, he gently leading her about, you might take him for her husband. Barbara, usually dressed in a robe or housedress and slippers, walks with a cane and is mildly disoriented.
The other room is that of Dean (Alix Austin), his very pregnant wife, Emma (Janet Etuk), and their kids, preteen Paige (Grace Willoughby when I attended) and adolescent Jason (Oliver Finnegan). Colin and Barbara have been here for longer than the six months said to be the limit for such stays; the other family has recently arrived. All residents are waiting for a more permanent government solution to their dilemmas.
What exposition there is reveals just bits and pieces of who these people are—including the passing admission that the white children are Dean’s from a previous relationship, Emma being a woman of color—and how they came to lose their homes and end up temporary wards of the state. Barely anything is discussed of the circumstances in which they are now living; they just get on with it, living their lives as best they can. Inter-family suspicions arise, then diminish. Territory is protected. Dean tries to find work; Emma studies for something or other; Paige happily prepares for a school Christmas pageant (the season deepens the pathos); and Jason sulks, awkwardly expressing himself by rapping.
Colin’s appearance colors him with a sense of danger, and his obvious interest in striking up a friendship with Emma suggests more than it really is. Looks being deceiving, we see how touchingly devoted he is to the care of his mum, while simultaneously being anguished by his caregiving responsibilities.
Two other residents appear as well, One is a woman in a hijab named Tharwa (Hind Swareldahab, who had never acted before joining the play), a Sudanese refugee waiting for her children to arrive; the other is Adnan (Nabi Dakhli), a bearded young man from Syria, who views Billy Elliot on his phone. Each is mostly silent and reclusive, but when they discover that they both speak Arabic their conversation suddenly flowers.
Although based on much research and many workshops, LOVE contains very little conventional plot. For much of the time we watch people doing the little things that get them through the day, some of them having a slightly dramatic quality, as happens in life, most of them being routine. Colin washes his mother’s hair over the sink. Dean and his son have a pillow fight inside their room. A marvelous set piece shows Colin smearing a piece of bread with a spread, taking it to a table, and eating it with great deliberation, not finishing until he’s picked up each crumb from the plate or table.
There are no bad guys or good guys, just people doing their everyday things, with barely any discussion of the situation, struggling to maintain their dignity while inevitably expressing their loneliness and need for connection in simple human ways, like Barbara slowly rambling among the nearby audience members, seeking a touch or hug. Overall, stasis rules; lengthy, soundless pauses are frequent; the overall pace is maddeningly slow. Our experience at conventional drama makes us feel that things will pick up as some incident incites further action, but it rarely does.
Although the play is intermissionless, scene breaks arrive regularly via traditional theatrical means when an ominous sound (created by Anio Grigg) fills the space, suggesting something significant is about to happen; then, following a blackout, the ennui continues, with only minor blips on the dramatic chart to keep our interest alive.
At the end, we’ve spent an hour and a half witnessing the daily routine of unfortunate folks forced to reside in a homeless shelter, albeit not the kind where hundreds of people sleep on cots in vast spaces like the Park Avenue Armory itself. Obviously, you feel the poignancy of the situation, but not much more. The excellent acting is uniformly naturalistic, the vocal projection restrained (making it difficult to hear much of it from the bleachers), the simmering emotions subdued, the characters relatively unexplored. If we’re supposed to experience the boredom and isolation of living in such an institution, that goal has been reached. Otherwise, LOVE is easy to admire but not that easy to love.
Park Avenue Armory
643 Park Avenue, NYC
Through March 25, 2023
Photography: Stephanie Berger