Review: “Sanctuary City”

Movie trailers today mostly are constructed the same way – a line or two of characters yelling or a violent incident quick cuts to another violent incident or line or two of characters yelling. And accompanying each cut is a loud thudding or whomping sound designed to jolt the audience to attention. Using these noises for transition is a cheap, annoying device. It is all the more annoying in the theater.

The first 50 minutes or so Martyna Majok’s Sanctuary City is made up of short scenes between the two leading characters. Frequently the exchanges last only a matter of seconds and then we are abruptly moved to another time, another scene, another mood. Each of these moves is punctuated with a dramatic change in lighting and movie-style audio punctuation. The lighting shifts work nicely. The thuds and whomps feel like overkill. Especially in the service of a play that doesn’t need artificial punctuation to jolt us to attention.

Two high school friends – a girl and a boy (we aren’t given full names; they’re listed as G and B in the program) – are in this country illegally. (We never learn what their home countries were.) Along with their mothers, both try to avoid attracting attention from authorities who could deport them. His mother decides to return home, leaving him to try to fend for himself earning lousy money under the table. She has a stroke of luck; her mother becomes a naturalized citizen and, because she is not yet eighteen, she is automatically naturalized as well. Because she is “legal,” she can begin to go to college on a scholarship. Though he, too, should go to college, his circumstances keep him trapped, continuing the crap job and avoiding deportation.

There’s another wrinkle. He’s gay and the play takes place years before naturalization through gay marriage in the US becomes possible. She can protect him from deportation by marrying him, but that means creating a fictional life that would have to bear up to investigation by suspicious authorities. (If caught, they could be jailed or fined.) And then there are other circumstances to consider …

I won’t say more about the plot. But the last chunk of the play switches gears from changing scenes every few seconds to a sustained, meaty confrontation in which the boy (played by Jasai Chase-Owens) and the girl (Sharlene Cruz) and a third character (Austin Smith) try to sort out their complicated relationship. Director Rebecca Frecknall has given the play a muscular staging, doing particularly subtle work in guiding Chase-Owens and Cruz through the years when the passing time changes their body language.

Everyday we seem to have fresh news about how federal and state laws are written to restrict the options of both citizens and non-citizens (options which may be further restricted because of race and class). Though it’s set more than a decade ago, Majok has written a potent and timely play about how these laws can play out in the lives of people invisible to much of society. Given the gifted cast and the virtuoso staging, I don’t think the thuds and whomps are necessary for the play’s impact, but I suggest the rewards of the evening are worth putting up with them.

A New York Theater Workshop production at the Lucille Lortel Theater.

About dgsweet

I write for and about theater. I spent a number of years as a resident playwright of a theater in Chicago which put up 14 of my plays, and I still think of Chicago as my primary theatrical home, though I actually live in New York. I serve on the Council of the Dramatists Guild. Between plays, I write books, most notably SOMETHING WONDERFUL RIGHT AWAY (about Second City), THE O'NEILL (about the O'Neill Center) and THE DRAMATIST'S TOOLKIT (a text on playwriting craft). I also occasionally perform a solo show called YOU ONLY SHOOT THE ONES YOU LOVE. I enjoy visiting theaters outside of New York. I can be reached at dgsweet@aol.com.
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