Martyna Majok, the Polish-born American playwright whose play “Cost of Living” won the Pulitzer Prize for drama this year, invites us into worlds that theatergoers have been trained to look past.
Her characters are the supernumeraries of the stage, domestics with foreign accents, factory workers who labor silently in the shadows. Their struggles constitute the plots of her plays, which can be testing for audience members who prefer diversion to social realism. But Majok — educated at elite institutions (University of Chicago, the Yale School of Drama) but always mindful of being the daughter of a hardscrabble immigrant worker — is an artist, not a commercial hack.
“Ironbound,” produced at the Geffen Playhouse earlier this year, focuses on a Polish immigrant scratching out a living in the industrial wastelands of New Jersey, a woman whose brutal economic reality has turned even her intimate relationships into small change haggling. “Unrelievedly grim” is a phrase I used in my mostly admiring review, and one reader emailed to say I should have stopped there.
In “Cost of Living,” which is slated to have its West Coast premiere this fall at the Fountain Theatre, it’s not always clear who has it harder, the disabled or their caretakers, whose lives can be just as precarious emotionally and financially. The human condition is one that not even the comparatively lucky can escape — a sentiment more common in Romanian and Polish art films than in traditional subscription-based theater. I’m not complaining.
In “Queens,” the West Coast premiere of which at La Jolla Playhouse closes Sunday, Majok takes a broader look at immigrant women as they cycle through an unlawful basement apartment in the New York City borough that may have partly inspired the title. The dramatic scope is larger both in terms of the number of characters and the time period, which stretches from 2017 back to the months immediately following the 9/11 attacks.
Produced this year at Lincoln Center’s Claire Tow Theater, “Queens” succeeds as sociological study but falters as drama. The tense domestic life of the women, who hide their liquor and measure the levels of milk left in the carton, is unflinchingly captured. At a time when the plight of migrants and refugees has been thrust into the political spotlight, the play’s humane exploration of this population couldn’t be timelier. But the complicated theatrical structure, full of flashbacks and narrative layering, dissipates rather than concentrates our emotional involvement.
The play begins on a false note. Inna (Rae Gray), a Ukrainian woman looking for her mother, shows up at the door of Renia (Brenda Meaney), a Polish immigrant who appears to be the building’s landlord. Frustrated by the sneering responses to her questions, Inna punches Renia, who then rents her a room in the empty basement apartment.
New Yorkers who get pounded in the face by strangers don’t usually permit them to become tenants. But Renia glimpses her own daughter in belligerent Inna, and Majok allows playwriting to momentarily supersede psychology.
“Queens” then turns the clock back 16 years to 2001, when Renia was a diffident newcomer to the apartment, which is occupied by a group of cynical, overworked women: Pelagiya (Leslie Fray) from Belarus, Aamani (Jolly Abraham) from Afghanistan and Isabella (Xochitl Romero) from Honduras. The way these roommates negotiate their boundaries, defending limited turf while dealing with the cramped camaraderie imposed by their unenviable situation, is the most gripping aspect of the play.
Majok specializes in anti-sentimentality. Her female characters, too downtrodden to play nice, are a truculent lot. So used to being abused, they have their fists up in anticipation of being assailed even in situations that aren’t obviously threatening.
Isabella, who must return home to be with her sick mother who is caring for her daughter, acts like the last thing in the world she wants is a going-away party. She can neither chip in for beer and chips nor afford the emotional debt of being grateful. “I don’t come to this country for so you people can know me,” she says in her irregular but bracingly clear English.
Isabella has a tender side, but like nearly all of Majok’s female characters, privation and a lack of safety have taught her to keep it under wraps. Softer feelings emerge but only grudgingly. The economic exile of these women is a prison that can’t be wished away by comforting words and kindly gestures.
But by being so scrupulous about her subject matter, Majok paints herself into a corner. What some theatergoers find disaffecting about her work isn’t the exposure of immigrant misery but the repetitiveness of the dramatization.
It’s movement that one longs for in the theater. Majok finds a limited amount of this in the prospect of intimacy between characters whose capacity for trust has been grievously wounded. Renia would like a do-over with her daughter, whom she had to leave behind to earn a living. But the economic trauma of her existence has entrenched self-protective reflexes. After all the sacrifices, her reward is to become either victim or perpetrator, and the latter seems, to her, marginally preferable.
The smaller canvas of “Ironbound” conceals to a degree the dramaturgical conundrum that Majok faces, but even in that play, scenes accrue rather than build. “Cost of Living,” which has a parallel structure that prevents us from getting stuck in either of the two emotionally complicated situations of caregivers who have their own burdens, is more involving. But the play still has to contrive a resolution that is as much a playwriting maneuver as the punch Inna throws at Renia at the start of “Queens.”
The framework for “Queens” is more elaborate and cerebral. Additional characters arrive at the apartment, only to have their hopes and dignity dashed. Connection is fleeting, perhaps even futile. (The good that is attempted is ineffectual and not always convincingly depicted.) The discursiveness of the drama compounds the sluggishness of the plot.
Director Carey Perloff’s production has trouble finding a storytelling rhythm that can propel the action, or our interest, forward. The staging handles the overlap of scenes with grace, but content dominates form. The play chugs along, proud of its grit, oblivious of its grind.
Grim reality will always be with us. But it’s the complexity of a character’s moral response to difficult circumstances that most deeply touches our humanity.
Narrative development isn’t the only way out of the impasse, but Majok is working in a realistic mode that makes this the most obvious solution to the problem she’s assigned herself. Yet she seems to have more conviction about what she doesn’t want her stories to do than what she actually wants them to accomplish.
Earnest uplift is taboo, and anything that sugarcoats or simplifies the suffering is forbidden. But emotional movement doesn’t have to be paralyzed for the sake of avoiding sentimentality. Majok, not wanting to betray the experiences of characters too beaten down to even dream of happy endings, seems locked into a false choice.
George Bernard Shaw, in an essay comparing the acting of Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse, writes that while Bernhardt is able “to harrow us with her sorrows,” Duse reveals in her considerate representation of inner pain the desire “to shield others from the infection of its torment.” For Shaw, this “exquisitely sympathetic” awareness is an expression of “moral charm” that allows Duse to dwarf Bernhardt in her artistic range.
Majok’s work is full of discreet and considerate touches that Duse’s genius would have been able to fully draw out. But there’s a larger point, as applicable to playwriting as it is to acting, about what moves us most in the theater. Grim reality will always be with us. But it’s the complexity of a character’s moral response to difficult circumstances that most deeply touches our humanity. A protagonist who’s a frozen fortress, however understandable her condition, will take a writer only so far.
If Majok’s talent weren’t so impressive and her subject so imperative, it would be easy to leave her in peace with her Pulitzer. But the American theater needs her sensibility right now, and I hope she finds the right directing collaborator (the way Annie Baker, say, found Sam Gold) to help her dislodge and develop her theatrical vision. The ambition of “Queens” should augur an even richer playwriting future for Majok, but first she must free herself from the fear of falsifying what she has witnessed firsthand.
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