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Theatre in Review: Sanctuary City (New York Theatre Workshop/Lucille Lortel Theatre)

Sharlene Cruz, Jasai Chase-Owens. Photo: Joan Marcus

When it comes to laying bare the lives of the American underclass -- the people who do our dirty work without sufficient recompense, and that's just for starters -- Martyna Majok is without peer. Exploring the corner of northern New Jersey that she has made her own dramatic territory, she zeros in on the challenges that make her characters' daily lives a struggle; lacking social support and emotionally on their own, they must navigate any number of soul-destroying transactions merely to keep going. Upping the ante, Majok puts them into powerfully dramatic situations in which each choice comes with devastating consequences. Still, in her work certain structural inelegancies persist; Sanctuary City is a continuously gripping affair, with much to say about the shameful consequences of our immigration policies, and it would be a mistake to miss it. But be prepared for a major stylistic switch that -- in a small, but significant, way -- undermines the play's impact.

Majok's focus is on the plight of DREAMers. B and G are bright, gifted young people brought to the US as young children; approaching their last year of high school, their hopes are curtailed by their irregular circumstances. G has even bigger problems: Her mother suffers from perpetual man trouble and her current partner is free with his fists. In self-defense, G spends many nights at B's apartment, getting the sleep denied her at home. B has troubles of his own: His mother, convinced that her luck has run out, is returning to her native country, leaving him to choose whether to go with her or stay and eke out an undocumented life. (We never learn where the characters are from, although the Caribbean islands or Central America both seem likely.) B's frustration is palpable: He does everything right -- earning good grades and putting in long hours in a lousy restaurant job -- but his prospects are constantly shrinking.

Employing dozens of micro-length scenes across a scrambled time frame, Majok vividly evokes the tender semi-sibling relationship that springs up between B and G. He gives her a place to crash, making excuses for her at school when she is too bruised to attend without raising questions -- as always, the first potential step to deportation. They inhabit a private world, sharing their troubles and pooling their meager resources. When B's mother leaves, it seems natural that G should move in and help with the rent. You might wonder why they haven't fallen for each other, a possibility that seems to hover over their prom-night date. But G has a scholarship to attend college in Boston, and, in a surprise turn of events, her mother breaks out of her abusive relationship and attains citizenship -- which extends to G. B is happy for his friend but also forlorn about facing a dead-end existence alone -- until G raises a tantalizing possibility: Why don't they marry?

Up to this point, Sanctuary City is a confident, original piece, building a pointillist portrait of B and G's tight friendship amid seemingly impossible circumstances. Isabella Byrd's inventive lighting ensures that each brief scene flickers in and out like firelight, and Mikaal Sulaiman's equally fluent sound design provides needed punctuation; these design elements provide solid structural support. And Majok's gift for characterization is evident: B and G are so appealing that one desperately wants them to find a way forward, even as life seems to drive them apart.

Then the action leaps ahead three-and-a-half years to a greatly changed situation. B and G have drifted while she is at college, and she has abruptly and without explanation pulled the plug on their wedding plans. B has become romantically involved with Henry, a law student with strong career prospects, news that reached G later rather than sooner. That Henry and G are threatened by each other is only the beginning of this trio's problems. At no time was the B - G wedding posited as a true love match, but a deep vein of feeling still exists between them. Henry would marry B in a second, but it is the early 2000s and same-sex marriage is years away from becoming the law of the land; indeed, it hardly seems likely to happen.

What follows is a three-way confrontation, filled with accusations of betrayal and abandonment. It's an agonizing tangle, with no good outcome: If B agrees to marry G, what will be the terms of the relationship? And where will Henry fit in? Without G, B may be forever consigned to the shadows, which leaves Henry exactly where? It is lost on nobody that Henry, in training to be a lawyer, is illegally harboring B. An amicable solution might be possible if all three characters acted in concert; instead, they are inflamed with grievance and fear. This, by any standard, is full-throated drama -- and yet, compared to the play's first half, it feels stolid, conventional, even a bit turgid. When it comes to self-justification, everyone gets a turn, but many questions remain unanswered. Did B always know he was gay? Did G have an inkling? At one point, G, talking about her time in Boston, says, "I ignored the stories, the news, my feelings -- any feelings I coulda had -- for anyone else. I never even kissed anyone. For three-and-a-half years." Really? Even when she and B were out of touch?

On reflection, most of what happens makes a certain sense. Maybe G, having been brutalized by men, was happy to be with someone who made no physical demands. Maybe B, consumed with getting through the day, was blind to his feelings for men. But it seems indisputable that the first half of Sanctuary City, as beguiling as it is, doesn't fully lay the groundwork for its more conventional climax. Ironically, the play is most convincing when it employs dramatic artifice; it is only when it turns straightforward that it feels slightly contrived.

Despite this, Sanctuary City remains engrossing up to its desolate finale and the three-person cast, under the direction of Rebecca Frecknall, illuminates the dark corners of this triangle with considerable skill. (Sanctuary City was in previews when lockdown began in March 2020. Frecknall is British, so her direction has been recreated by Caitlin Sullivan.) Sharlene Cruz, a new face, captures G's many facets, including her blunt honesty, can-do attitude, and occasional penchant for emotional blackmail; most impressive is the moment when G turns on B, bullying him with a list of his worst fears. It's brave work; her willingness to risk losing the audience's sympathy is the mark of a true artist. Jasai Chase-Owens, who charmed in recent Public Theater Mobile Unit productions of The Tempest and A Midsummer Night's Dream, brings a loose-limbed grace to the role of B, especially when taking part with G in rapid-fire run-throughs of the questions they can expect from ICE agents if they get caught. Austin Smith has a thankless job as Henry, coming in late in the action and having to establish himself with little or no exposition, but he executes himself like the pro he is.

Set designer Tom Scutt isolates the cast on a tiny, raked deck at stage center; the surrounding volume allows Byrd to illuminate the stage from a dizzying series of angles; this is some of her best work. Scutt's costumes feel right for the characters. In addition to pacing the action with his sound effects, Sulaiman also provides a variety of New York streets sounds and enlivens the prom sequence with selections from the Backstreet Boys and Outkast.

Whatever its structural oddities, Sanctuary City sticks in the mind, thanks to the vivid characters (That the daily news is filled with grim scenes at the southern border only underscores the play's relevance.) Whatever you think about B, G, and their choices, the fact remains that, thanks to a certain xenophobia built into contemporary American culture, lives like these are being cruelly wasted. The tragedy is theirs, and ours -- a point that Majok renders with blazing clarity. --David Barbour

(22 September 2021)

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