Review: The Homeless Wait for More Than Just Shelter From the Cold in Love

The second play in Alexander Zeldin’s Inequalities series runs at the Park Avenue Armory.

If hell is other people, then maybe purgatory is other people you’re forced to share tight quarters with for a little while. That’s the situation of the folks staying in a temporary housing facility in England in Alexander Zeldin’s gruelingly realistic 90-minute play Love, which premiered at London’s National Theatre in 2016 and is now running at the Park Avenue Armory. Part of a series of plays examining how tightened restrictions on public welfare spending in the United Kingdom affect those in need, Love takes an unflinching look at something that the fortunate among us have not had to experience.

At the center of the story is a family of four — out-of-work dad Dean (Alex Austin), his expectant partner, Emma (Janet Etuk), and Dean’s two children from another relationship: Jason (Oliver Finnegan) and Paige (Amelia Finnegan, who alternates the role with Grace Willoughby). Unable to afford the recently hiked rent on their apartment, they’ve been forced to traverse the sticky bureaucratic web of the UK’s public assistance program and take shelter in a single room (impressively dingy set design by Natasha Jenkins). In the room next door live two longtime residents, the slovenly, middle-aged Colin (Nick Holder), who ambles about asking for food, and his mother, Barbara (Amelda Brown), whose physical health is rapidly deteriorating.

Over the course of the play, we see Dean and Emma trying desperately to make their current situation seem “normal” — fixing breakfast for the kids, shuffling them off to school, hanging sad Christmas decorations on the walls — while futilely trying to get answers from case workers about the state of their applications for housing. Meanwhile, Colin doesn’t seem all that intent on getting out, and when given the chance at an interview, he ruins it by mouthing off. Syrian refugee Adnan (Naby Dakhli) tends to stay out of everyone’s way and finds his only relief from the shelter’s loneliness in Tharwa (Hind Swareldahab), a Sudanese immigrant who also speaks Arabic. She tells him she refuses to drink orange juice from a carton, when back at home in Sudan they picked oranges from a tree.

That reference to orange trees is one of the only sunny images in this grim, naturalistic drama, which Zeldin wrote after workshopping the play at length with residents who spent time in similar facilities. Zeldin, who also directs, never shies away from showing us the minutiae of his characters’ days and letting us sit through the silences that accompany them. At times the only sound that can be heard in the cavernous theater is a tree branch rustling against one of the facility’s windows (Josh Anio Grigg’s sound design gives the rustling an ominous echo).

This can all make for a tough theatergoing experience, because not much happens in the way of dramatic action. Occasionally an argument over a coffee cup breaks out, and there is a fair amount of shouting over cell phones, but Zeldin also forces us to listen to the vast stretches of quiet that fill his characters’ days.

Despite making a clear point about the stressful situation and endless bureaucratic nightmare that adults and children in these facilities must endure, the play could have easily become deadly tiresome if not for the brilliant cast. As Emma, Etuk conveys a repressed frenzy in every move she makes, touching her near-term belly and quietly panicking about her almost certainly undernourished unborn child. And in a small but memorable role, Oliver Finnegan (wearing a Fortnite T-shirt and hoody, apt costume design also by Jenkins) plays a frustrated teen who tries desperately to lose himself in rap lyrics.

The play is not without humor. What little there is comes from Amelia Finnegan’s charming performance as the young Paige, who flits about the stage as she practices her angel role for a Christmas pageant while hurling an occasional “fuck you” at her annoying older brother. We’re grateful for these momentary respites from the gloom.

We’re never far from it, though. Zeldin allows some of the audience’s seats to spill down into the playing area, so that the actors can drift in among us and take a seat now and then. It’s not interactive per se, but the intention seems to be a reminder that there was a time when these unfortunate folks were just like us and never imagined they’d be in a situation like this. There but for the grace of God go we.

The title of the play hangs over all this misery and by the end leaves us wondering what it means; in a place like this, people have no use for abstract ideas like love. Perhaps we’re not meant to hear the title as an abstraction either, but rather as the name of a person. “Wait, love,” says Dean to his daughter. “I’m sorry, love,” says Colin to Emma. Maybe Love is other people too.