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Theatre in Review: Love (National Theatre/Park Avenue Armory)

Amelia Finnegan, Oliver Finnegan. Photo: Stephanie Berger Photography/Park Avenue Armory

"We need to find a way to talk about things that we don't want to see." That's playwright/director Alexander Zeldin talking, and he achieves his goal magnificently in Love. Set in a UK homeless shelter, the play details with documentary authenticity a handful of residents, all of them hopelessly lost in an incomprehensible bureaucratic maze. Living in one room is Dean, a young apprentice electrician; Emma, his partner, who is due to give birth in a few weeks; and Dean's children: twelve-year-old Jason and eight-year-old Paige. In another room are the fiftyish Colin, a hefty, bald, vulgarian, and Barbara, his elderly mother, who is slipping into a confused, childlike state. Coming and going are Tharwa, a fortysomething Sudanese woman, and Adnan, a Syrian refugee.

"We've done nothing wrong," insists Emma, and yet she and the others find themselves in prisonlike conditions, trying to negotiate a system notable only for its inability to deliver services. Make one false step and the consequences are endless: Dean and Emma, unable to cover an onerous increase in rent, were evicted from their flat, causing Dean to miss an appointment at his local jobs center, triggering a cut to his benefit money; it's punishment by starvation. A summons to the jobs center can arrive with less than an hour's notice, preventing Dean from taking Jason and Paige to school and causing Emma to miss an important doctor's appointment.

Everyone in Love is trapped in a grim utilitarian limbo holding onto a sense of normality by their fingernails; the play, a study in stasis, is nevertheless filled with suspense as one event after another -- petty disputes, emotional outbursts, violated personal spaces, and an upsetting episode of incontinence -- comes with destabilizing consequences. If Natasha Jenkins' set -- a depressing common room with cafeteria tables; grimy, no-color walls; and a single toilet -- seems surprisingly vast, it isn't large enough for Zeldin's characters, who are forever trying to carve out some private space. The bathroom is a frequent flashpoint for conflict, but other battles are waged for storage drawers, counter space, and ownership of cups and plates.

In what may be the most devastating sequence to be seen in New York just now, Dean returns from another fruitless day of activity. He microwaves a single frozen meal, doling it out to Emma and the children. He insists he has already eaten -- a transparent lie -- until Emma give him part of her meager portion, which he desperately gobbles up. Indeed, Dean and Emma shore up their spirits by sticking rigidly to a routine; it only takes a little mishap to expose them as living on the edge of chaos. When Colin tells them that he and Barbara have been in the shelter for a year, several months longer than is legally allowed, they fearfully insist their case is different. One wonders if they really believe that.

And yet, Zeldin makes repeatedly good on his title, revealing his characters in all their deep humanity. In an especially moving sequence, Colin washes Barbara's hair, using Fairy Soap, a liquid dishwashing detergent. She giggles like a little girl as he dries her off, calling her his "golden princess." It's an overwhelmingly tender moment. Barbara offers Paige one of her necklaces, putting it around the girl's neck and grabbing her in a desperate embrace. Colin, exhausted by caring for his mother, asks to touch Emma's swollen stomach, essentially begging for a moment of hope. And when, her nerves rubbed raw after a particularly mortifying episode, Emma asks, "Are we going to be okay?", all Dean can offer is undying devotion -- which, of course, won't put food on the table.

It's a terribly sad piece, an urgent wake-up call, and yet so enveloping is the effect of Zeldin's staging and so assured his ensemble that one can't help being totally engaged in the characters and their moment-by-moment struggle for dignity. Alex Austin and Janet Etuk give Dean and Emma a poignant emotional transparency, especially when trying to maintain a sense of stability for their kids. Young Oliver Finnegan captures Jason's bewilderment and fury, especially in an improvised rap sequence. At the performance I attended, Amelia Finnegan (who alternates with Grace Willoughby) was captivating as Paige, keeping anxiety at bay by rehearsing her bit in a school Christmas pageant. Even with little to do, Hind Swareldahab is a powerful presence as Tharwa, engaging in a nasty set-to with Emma and later offering a humble apology. There's something especially affecting about the sight of Naby Dakhli as Adnan, passing the time watching the "Swan Lake" sequence from Billy Elliot on his smartphone.

Nearly stealing the production, however, are Nick Holder as lumbering, well-intentioned Colin, a human storm of F-bombs afflicted with poor impulse control, and Amelda Brown as frail, birdlike Barbara, eager for any sign of affection yet horrified at losing control over her body. Their scenes together form the most irrefutable indictment of a society unwilling to care for its most vulnerable citizens.

Love was performed at the Dorfman, the most intimate venue at London's National Theatre, and while one must be grateful to Park Avenue Armory for bringing it to New York, the cavernous space may not be ideal for an intimate, immersive production. Sit too far back on the armory's massive bleacher system and you may feel distanced from the action; sit too close and you may find your view obstructed from time to time, especially during the crucial sequence when Barbara has an accident. Nevertheless, Jenkins' set is highly effective as are her costumes. Marc Williams recreates the stark feel of institutional fluorescent lighting, also providing more nuanced looks during late-night or early-morning scenes. Josh Anio Grigg provides disturbing soundscapes between scenes in addition to a round of necessary effects.

The real miracle of Love is how it forces us to confront one of Western society's most egregious failings without making us want to turn away. It's an astonishing piece, and, in its quiet, unmelodramatic way, it demands to be seen. --David Barbour

(2 March 2023)

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