As the Tony Awards saluting the two-thirds or so of the 2019-2020 season that opened are finally celebrated this Sunday Off Broadway chugs along, with its highest-profile opening to date with the New York Theatre Workshop production of Sanctuary City, at the Lucille Lortel. (It was in previews last March before covid brought down the curtain and the company notes that the programs, “frozen in time,” are the same ones printed last year.) Playwright Martyna Majok’s Cost of Living is one of our best recent shows, a Pulitzer Prize winner in 2018, and the title of her latest promised something equally passionate. But it doesn’t build force…then veers into another hot button topic from the immediate post-9/11 era in which it’s set, and loses its focus.
Focus is not something you can afford to lose in the early going. In a lengthy series of short, pointed exchanges in this intermissionless 100-minute play we meet B (Jasai Chase-Owens) and G (Sharlene Cruz), two high school kids living near Newark, NJ. Both were brought to the U.S. by their parents, both are undocumented, and both feel the sting of being “illegal aliens” in the wake of 9/11. Majok and British director Rebecca Frecknall (the “remount director,” a credit I’ve never seen before, is Caitlin Sullivan) give us a lot of information in bursts, aided by quicksilver lighting changes by Isabella Byrd. Gradually we see the headstrong G become a citizen (once her mom passes the nationalization test), and a brighter future awaits her as she considers moving to Boston for college. But B’s mom has decided to move back to her native country, stranding B in menial labor. G and B agree to a green card marriage, but being friends and not lovers both stumble over the intimacy questions that the immigration authorities are sure to ask. At a stalemate G pursues her college dream, returning to Newark a few years later.
Here the play changes. In a way it’s not a moment too soon–the actors deftly handle the staccato volleys of dialogue but the presentation, and their performances, become monotonous. I can understand Majok wanting to change things up after her last success but Cost of Living had such richly observed passages of real life, which we don’t see enough of; the “B” and “G” labels are already coy (if in a bureaucratic way) and neither fully emerges from abstraction. A third character, a Black law school student named Henry (Austin Smith), is introduced, and the play settles into its last movement, devoid of lighting changes, on Tom Scutt’s bare stage. I’m not sure it’s a spoiler but we soon learn why B was having such trouble with the intimacy questions, and an elephant lumbers into the room. While Henry is a decent sort with a command of the byzantine subject of immigration G dislikes him, and he her, and the two bicker. It’s not a spoiler to say that the conflicts that erupt are destined to remain as unresolved as the DREAM Act, introduced 20 years ago.
Sanctuary City is stronger on the dehumanizing effects of our policies on its protagonists than on the interpersonal pressures that further complicate their lives. It’s something of a disappointment–but given the playwright’s strengths I look forward to a rebound.