Whether with a gun, a mastermind or a monster, most thrillers thrill by invoking the specter of death: Who’s going to die and how? But “Love,” which opened on Tuesday at the Park Avenue Armory, keeps the audience ears-up anxious for 90 minutes without recourse to any of that. Its most alarming prop is a coffee cup, accidentally purloined, and what passes for a mastermind is a housing bureaucracy that’s evil only in its inefficiency. No one dies, yet the emotional threat level is off the charts and peculiarly personal. Call it a moral thriller: The monster is us.
And make no mistake, “Love,” written and directed by Alexander Zeldin, implicates its audience. Quite literally in some cases: About 75 of the 650 seats in the Armory’s vast Drill Hall are placed onstage with the set, which represents the dingy common room of a temporary housing facility. At times, the characters, who are residents of that facility, will glance suspiciously at us ticket holders, as if we too were unhoused residents, and might have stolen a sandwich. Other times they sit among us or, at one point, reach out for solace.
Yet even though “Love” is the middle play in a trilogy called “the Inequalities,” there is very little preachy or overtly political about it. The characters certainly have no time for treatises; each is desperate, for different reasons that add up to the same one, to get out of the facility as soon as possible. Colin, an unemployed man in his 50s, and his mother, Barbara, teetering on the edge of senility, have lived in Room 4 for nearly a year, trying to fend off impending indignity. This even though, as a new resident named Emma insists, “it’s six weeks maximum by law.”
Emma, too, has a deadline: Very pregnant, she does not want to give birth before finding a proper home. She is naïvely confident that her stay in Room 5 — along with her partner, Dean, and Dean’s two children from a previous relationship — is temporary.
The arrangement seems fine for the girl, Paige, who is still young enough at 8 not to mind much her bleak and reduced surroundings; she’s more interested in rehearsing the school Christmas pageant. But for her 12-year-old brother, Jason, the sudden change of circumstances — the family could not afford a sudden rent hike where they’d been living — comes at a time when external disappointment finds too much fuel in the onset of garden-variety adolescent dismay.
That “Love” — first performed in London in 2016 and seen across Europe since then — is in fact set at Christmastime, with a few decorations and the promise of mince pies, is (aside from some unnecessarily scary sounds between scenes) the play’s only obvious heart-clutcher. Still, it’s apt: Dean is, after all, an out-of-work tradesman, and the promise of a late-December baby puts us in mind of injustice as old as the Bible.
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So do the other two residents we meet, both apparently refugees. Tharwa, from Sudan, and Adnan, from Syria — played by Hind Swareldahab and Naby Dakhli — are mostly silent in the presence of the native-born English characters, and are thus misunderstood or suspected of vague wrongdoing. Only when they discover a common language in Arabic and erupt in conversation that we get the joy of, if not the gist, do they become real to themselves and thus to us.
Merely remaining real — surviving the deprivation of home and privacy that most of us take for granted — is here a kind of victory. But just as Zeldin isn’t interested in stripping the dignity from his characters any further than the system has done already, he also refuses to sanctify them.
Yes, there are acts of kindness (Barbara offers Paige a gift), moments of unexpected diversion (Adnan watches “Billy Elliot”) and simply ordinary observations of family life (Paige is thrilled by Colin’s constant cursing). The play’s title is neither an irony nor a plea; it’s an emotion that survives as a lullaby sung over a cellphone or a casual nickname or a serious declaration of commitment.
But if the system were not dehumanizing there would be no drama; without its broken trust, no betrayals. For Dean (Alex Austin), the betrayal is bureaucratic; to advance in line for housing he must get a new job, but waiting in lines is a full-time job itself. For Barbara (Amelda Brown), the betrayal is physical and mortifying. For endlessly practical and even-tempered Emma (Janet Etuk), it’s the constant scraping down of patience that finally results in a crushing act of unsympathy.
That these expressions of systemic despair feel so specific and personal is no accident. Zeldin developed “Love” in a series of workshops that included families who had experienced homelessness. (Swareldahab had never been in a theater before joining one of them.) The set and costume design, both by Natasha Jenkins, have the same feeling of lived-in authenticity: Your eye notes the stray single sneaker, abandoned on the roof of the shared bathroom, and the barely translucent windows scrunched high up in the corners of the room as if they too are trying to escape.
Yet despite this and Marc Williams’s aptly harsh lights, which remain lit above the audience when they’re lit above the stage, “Love” is shaped by the poetics of drama as opposed to the logic of documentary. The characters are too particular to be placards, filled by the cast with so much subtext you’d think they would burst. And perhaps they do; among the uniformly excellent actors, Brown, as Barbara, stands out for her devastating portrait of dementia, Queen Lear in a shelter instead of on a moor.
But unlike Lear she is a mother; Colin, though often rough and gross, is in Nick Holder’s wonderful portrayal surprisingly babyish and dainty underneath. Tharwa is a mother, too, but for reasons we don’t quite know, she is, as the script says, “without her children.” And Emma will be a mother any day. Together, the three women give “Love” a spine that would keep it standing as drama even if the armature of enforced homelessness were one day, thankfully, dismantled.
I say “enforced” because bureaucracies are man-made and, with sufficient political will, reformable. We can sit around and argue that. Meanwhile, about 274,000 people are without homes in England, and about twice as many in the United States.
Though “Love” is a great piece of theater — funny, beautifully staged, and with the kind of excitement that retunes your attention to tiny heartbreaks instead of just huge ones — I couldn’t help but wonder why it was easier to engage the subject inside the Armory than on Park Avenue. (There were several homeless people on the subway I took home.) When one of the characters reaches for audience members’ hands, they freely give it. How freely outside?
Through March 25 at the Park Avenue Armory, Manhattan; armoryonpark.org. Running time: 1 hour and 30 minutes.
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