It’s the holiday season and all is not merry, though the fluorescents are bright. The characters in Alexander Zeldin’s play LOVE, making its U.S. debut at the Park Avenue Armory, are experiencing homelessness, huddled together in a temporary housing facility that may not be so temporary. The walls are a dingy, faded yellow. They share a single toilet and a mini fridge. There is an overriding sense of uncertainty: can the other residents be trusted? Will they ever make it out?
Zeldin’s play is largely plotless. Instead, he places the characters in the space together and lets them live. The central family consists of patriarch Dean (Alex Austin), his pregnant partner, Emma (Janet Etuk), and his two children from a previous relationship, Paige (Amelia Finnegan) and Jason (Oliver Finnegan). Dean and Emma were evicted after their landlord suddenly raised the rent and they couldn’t manage the increase. In the next room are Colin (Nick Holder) and his elderly mother Barbara (Amelda Brown). Colin appears to lack some social awareness–he is always standing in the corner staring at people and trying to jump into conversations. Barbara is increasingly frail and prone to incontinence. There is a degree of mystery surrounding how Colin and Barbara arrived at the facility. We only know that they agreed to leave their prior lodging and were promised another house, but it has not come.
Zeldin, who also directs, leaves it at that. We get to know them, minute-by-minute, gradually developing a sense of sympathy for all of them. We see each of the characters in two separate modes: there is a private self that is shared amongst their family unit, and there is the public self that interacts with the other residents in the shared space. They don’t form a community across familial lines. There’s a sense that everyone is trying to keep their heads down and not take up too much space. They have no ownership of where they live. There is even a triplicate of the characters when Zeldin shows them in moments when they’re alone. Their brave faces fall and we see their fear, their hunger, and their exhaustion. Dean has lost the subsidy he receives because he missed a work meeting on the day he was evicted. Emma is trying to keep up doctor’s appointments to make sure her pregnancy is on track, but when she manages to get one, Dean has to go to the employment center and she has to rush back to be with the children. Barbara receives a doctor’s note to expedite their move out of the facility, she allows a moment of hope, but when Colin returns, it’s with bad news.
It’s a feat of writing, directing, and acting that we can know these characters so well in so little time. Each of the actors brings an impeccably naturalistic touch to their performance. There are so many small details in their physicalities and their speech patterns and in each facial expression. Natasha Jenkins’ set and costumes provide an environment that supports this kind of layered, yet unassuming acting. The set is deceptively simple, but in its aging and its prop direction, it is as believable as any of the performances. The characters have almost nothing but the clothes on their backs and Jenkins’ design allows the importance of these items to have their full impact. The lighting by Marc Williams is a constellation of fluorescent light fixtures that slam on and off and flicker, hauntingly, like the eye of God. It reveals the truth, leaving nowhere to hide.
If Dean’s and Colin’s families don’t mesh with each other, there are two other residents in the facility that relate even less to the other characters. Tharwa (Hind Swareldahab) and Adnan (Naby Dalchi) live separately, but both speak Arabic and connect on that level. The other families seem suspicious of their otherness and Tharwa and Adnan move through the room with even less ownership than the white characters. Though Emma is Black, she, too, has a standoff with Tharwa over a cup that Tharwa has claimed as her own, but which actually belongs to Emma’s family. There’s a level of prejudice at play, showing that, even at what might be their lowest points, there is still pervasive racial inequality.
LOVE owes a debt to the films of Ken Loach in its quiet, slice-of-life social criticism. It never speechifies and the play never boils over. There are gentle crests and falls, but Zeldin is more interested in presenting a small period of time–of tragedy–in ordinary lives. He’s also highlighting the governmental failings that, though the play takes place in the U.K. are starkly relevant to our country, too. These characters don’t live on the street, at least when we see them, but they are without a place to call their home and without anyone to help them find one. The emotional stir of Zeldin’s play exists in this lacuna. Where can they go? How can they get back on their feet? As in life, there’s no answer given.