Alexander Zeldin’s play, a slice-of-life in a temporary housing facility, makes its U.S. debut in a quietly stirring production. Lane Williamson reviews.
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.
By Jackson McHenry, a Vulture senior writer covering theater, film, and TV
In one scene midway through Love, a mother played by Janet Etuk starts pouring soup into bowls for her husband and children. She metes out portions that seem too small, evenly dividing the limited supply of food as if she has done the grim math behind this action many times before. The gesture, like many aspects of Alexander Zeldin’s production, goes without extra emphasis but persuades you of its reality. The small, close-up gestures, piece by piece, add up to a captivating whole.
Love takes place in the grimy common area of a hostel in London, among families who are clinging to the hope that soon the government will find a place for them elsewhere. Etuk’s character, Emma, pregnant and close to her due date, and her partner, Dean (Alex Austin), are new here, at first eying the other residents with suspicion and trying to get their two children to stay in their bedroom. Next door, Colin (Nick Holder) tends to his aging mother, Barbara (Amelda Brown), rushing her ahead of others to get into the shared bathroom and then apologizing. Tension also develops over the shared kitchen, where the residents protect their own tableware and claim rights to space in the too-small fridge.
Given that it starts with that initial discontent, you might assume that Love would ratchet up the discord among the residents toward some big climax, but Zeldin avoids the predictable. Instead, we see a series of encounters that remain smaller-scale and quite desperate. Similarly, we get more details about the characters’ lives, glimpsing details of their own personal histories as we peer at what we can (a bit of a bed frame, some laundry arrayed in a cheap organizer) through doors left ajar on Natasha Jenkins’s set. Dean keeps calling a caseworker to try to get action on their case while his daughter loudly practices for her Nativity play. Adnan (Naby Dakhli), a Syrian newcomer to the building, watches a bit of Billy Elliot on his phone, keeping an eye on the volume. Later on, he bonds with Tharwa (Hind Swareldahab), a Sudanese refugee, speaking in Arabic about orange juice. Often, the encounters pivot on the ways the characters guard themselves engaging with the other residents on a human level. These circumstances have, reasonably, made them distrustful, though as they spend more time in such close proximity, it becomes harder for them to shut everyone around them out.
Zeldin based Love on research done with residents of temporary housing like the ones depicted in the play, working with them in various workshops in the play’s development process. The result isn’t quite docudrama (Zeldin himself doesn’t like that label), but it has that closely observed air: You sense an underlying structure even as he keeps the action at the simmer, as well as a number of observations (like pouring the soup, or the characters’ protectiveness of their own rolls of paper towels and toilet paper) that feel directly brought in from real life. Swareldahab, a refugee like her character, had no professional acting experience before joining Love when it premiered at the National Theatre in London in 2016. Since then, the production has toured Europe and been made into a film for the BBC, and this is its American premiere.
A story about housing precarity is, perhaps, an odd thing to have become a success, but Zeldin’s telling grips you as it goes along and doesn’t let go. That’s partially owed to sentimentality, not enough to oversweeten the story but enough to aid its digestibility: The action takes place in the run-up to Christmas, complete with a scene where characters unfurl decorations. More crucially, there is the show’s porous setup: A portion of the audience sits in chairs on the floor of the set, which is at the same level as the floor of the theater, and a character will occasionally take a seat among them. Zeldin anticipates that reflexive pulling back from a story you decide is too grim to take, and he’s staged the production to surround and almost consume you. The story is as much about the characters’ trying and failing to see each other as it is about the audience’s doing the same. By the daringly staged last few minutes, it literally reaches out to you.
Alexander Zeldin’s intimate one-act drama arrives Off Broadway after an acclaimed run in the U.K.
Thom Geier | March 2, 2023 @ 7:00 AM
Alexander Zeldin’s “Love” thrusts the audience — quite literally — into the common room of a facility for the homeless somewhere in modern Britain. Ticketgoers are seated on stage at the Park Avenue Armory, within inches of the performers, and the actors sometimes take a seat beside them, as if plopping themselves down in a chair that’s still within the drab-walled public space. (The run-down set is designed by Natasha Jenkins.)
We meet Colin (Nick Holder), a middle-aged caregiver long unemployed, and his increasingly incontinent mother, Barbara (Amelda Brown), who have spent a full year in this group home despite legal stipulations that their stay should not exceed six weeks.
We also meet Dean (Alex Austin) and his eight-months-pregnant wife, Emma (Janet Etuk), who are holed up in a tiny room together with Dean’s two children, the sullen rap-loving teenager Jason (Oliver Finnegan) and younger daughter Paige (Grace Willoughby and Amelia Finnegan alternate in the role), a plucky girl who recalls Olive from “Little Miss Sunshine” as she rehearses her routine in an upcoming nativity pageant.
Into the mix we also get too-brief glimpses of two refugees, a young bearded Syrian man (Naby Dakhli), whose arrival prompts Barbara to clutch her purse a little more tightly, and a Syrian woman in a hijab (Hind Swareldahab) who mentions a family she’s waiting to join her despite her failure to get any cellphone reception to check up on them. The two have a late-night exchange almost entirely in Arabic, one whose meaning becomes clear despite the lack of translation through their pantomimed gestures about their troublesome British neighbors. (One wishes these refugees had gotten more stage time.)
Zeldin and his company succeed in depicting the quotidian drama of shelter life: the squabbles over shared bathrooms, unwashed dishes in the common sink, who gets to use the bigger shelf in the refrigerator. The frictions sometimes escalate into real conflict — but never to the point where the cops must be called. What “Love” repeatedly emphasizes is a basic truth about many who fall victim to housing shortages: These are decent people trying their best in absolutely awful circumstances.
While there’s no facility manager or welfare officer anywhere on site, a real villain emerges in the callous capriciousness of unseen government bureaucrats. Colin waits five hours for a five-minute meeting with one housing official, only to be told there are no units available. Dean is booted off of government financial assistance after missing a job center appointment on the day he and his family were evicted from their apartment.
In most cases, we get only the sketchiest of backstories. We are meeting these characters where they’re at — in the midst of their struggle to make it through another day, to not lose their temper with people with the power to make their lives more difficult, to provide for themselves and for each other the best that they can. The extraordinary performances, understated and never actorly, reinforce the vérité quality of Zeldin’s script. (Many have appeared in the intimate drama in earlier incarnations in the U.K. as well on European tours.)
Despite the atmosphere of gloom, we are rewarded with flashes of lightness, even joy. Colin washes his mother’s hair in the common sink with dish soap, a tactile gesture of affection that provides real, if fleeting pleasure for both of them. Dean breaks down and visits a food bank, bringing back both holiday decorations and a dinner of canned soup that’s a big step up from the rice and toast they’ve been having. But even these moments of grace prove short-lived. (As Paige comments after emptying her bowl, “I’m still hungry.”)
“Love” culminates in an extraordinary fourth-wall-breaking scene that can only be seen as a direct challenge to the audience. After all that you have seen and heard, Zeldin seems to ask, can you still just sit there and remain an entirely passive observer? Will you really do nothing for these people?
Lighting and Sound America
“We need to find a way to talk about things that we don’t want to see.” That’s playwright/director Alexander Zeldin talking, and he achieves his goal magnificently in Love. Set in a UK homeless shelter, the play details with documentary authenticity a handful of residents, all of them hopelessly lost in an incomprehensible bureaucratic maze. Living in one room is Dean, a young apprentice electrician; Emma, his partner, who is due to give birth in a few weeks; and Dean’s children: twelve-year-old Jason and eight-year-old Paige. In another room are the fiftyish Colin, a hefty, bald, vulgarian, and Barbara, his elderly mother, who is slipping into a confused, childlike state. Coming and going are Tharwa, a fortysomething Sudanese woman, and Adnan, a Syrian refugee.
“We’ve done nothing wrong,” insists Emma, and yet she and the others find themselves in prisonlike conditions, trying to negotiate a system notable only for its inability to deliver services. Make one false step and the consequences are endless: Dean and Emma, unable to cover an onerous increase in rent, were evicted from their flat, causing Dean to miss an appointment at his local jobs center, triggering a cut to his benefit money; it’s punishment by starvation. A summons to the jobs center can arrive with less than an hour’s notice, preventing Dean from taking Jason and Paige to school and causing Emma to miss an important doctor’s appointment.
Everyone in Love is trapped in a grim utilitarian limbo holding onto a sense of normality by their fingernails; the play, a study in stasis, is nevertheless filled with suspense as one event after another — petty disputes, emotional outbursts, violated personal spaces, and an upsetting episode of incontinence — comes with destabilizing consequences. If Natasha Jenkins‘ set — a depressing common room with cafeteria tables; grimy, no-color walls; and a single toilet — seems surprisingly vast, it isn’t large enough for Zeldin’s characters, who are forever trying to carve out some private space. The bathroom is a frequent flashpoint for conflict, but other battles are waged for storage drawers, counter space, and ownership of cups and plates.
In what may be the most devastating sequence to be seen in New York just now, Dean returns from another fruitless day of activity. He microwaves a single frozen meal, doling it out to Emma and the children. He insists he has already eaten — a transparent lie — until Emma give him part of her meager portion, which he desperately gobbles up. Indeed, Dean and Emma shore up their spirits by sticking rigidly to a routine; it only takes a little mishap to expose them as living on the edge of chaos. When Colin tells them that he and Barbara have been in the shelter for a year, several months longer than is legally allowed, they fearfully insist their case is different. One wonders if they really believe that.
And yet, Zeldin makes repeatedly good on his title, revealing his characters in all their deep humanity. In an especially moving sequence, Colin washes Barbara’s hair, using Fairy Soap, a liquid dishwashing detergent. She giggles like a little girl as he dries her off, calling her his “golden princess.” It’s an overwhelmingly tender moment. Barbara offers Paige one of her necklaces, putting it around the girl’s neck and grabbing her in a desperate embrace. Colin, exhausted by caring for his mother, asks to touch Emma’s swollen stomach, essentially begging for a moment of hope. And when, her nerves rubbed raw after a particularly mortifying episode, Emma asks, “Are we going to be okay?”, all Dean can offer is undying devotion — which, of course, won’t put food on the table.
It’s a terribly sad piece, an urgent wake-up call, and yet so enveloping is the effect of Zeldin’s staging and so assured his ensemble that one can’t help being totally engaged in the characters and their moment-by-moment struggle for dignity. Alex Austin and Janet Etuk give Dean and Emma a poignant emotional transparency, especially when trying to maintain a sense of stability for their kids. Young Oliver Finnegan captures Jason’s bewilderment and fury, especially in an improvised rap sequence. At the performance I attended, Amelia Finnegan (who alternates with Grace Willoughby) was captivating as Paige, keeping anxiety at bay by rehearsing her bit in a school Christmas pageant. Even with little to do, Hind Swareldahab is a powerful presence as Tharwa, engaging in a nasty set-to with Emma and later offering a humble apology. There’s something especially affecting about the sight of Naby Dakhli as Adnan, passing the time watching the “Swan Lake” sequence from Billy Elliot on his smartphone.
Nearly stealing the production, however, are Nick Holder as lumbering, well-intentioned Colin, a human storm of F-bombs afflicted with poor impulse control, and Amelda Brown as frail, birdlike Barbara, eager for any sign of affection yet horrified at losing control over her body. Their scenes together form the most irrefutable indictment of a society unwilling to care for its most vulnerable citizens.
Love was performed at the Dorfman, the most intimate venue at London’s National Theatre, and while one must be grateful to Park Avenue Armory for bringing it to New York, the cavernous space may not be ideal for an intimate, immersive production. Sit too far back on the armory’s massive bleacher system and you may feel distanced from the action; sit too close and you may find your view obstructed from time to time, especially during the crucial sequence when Barbara has an accident. Nevertheless, Jenkins’ set is highly effective as are her costumes. Marc Williams recreates the stark feel of institutional fluorescent lighting, also providing more nuanced looks during late-night or early-morning scenes. Josh Anio Grigg provides disturbing soundscapes between scenes in addition to a round of necessary effects.
The real miracle of Love is how it forces us to confront one of Western society’s most egregious failings without making us want to turn away. It’s an astonishing piece, and, in its quiet, unmelodramatic way, it demands to be seen. –David Barbour
Amelda Brown in LOVE | Photo: Stephanie Berger Photography/Park Avenue Armory
LOVE, written and directed by Alexander Zeldin, is a frustrating piece. In a program note, Zeldin describes the process of using a housing report, firsthand testimonies, and workshops with shelter occupants to create LOVE. It’s clear a great deal of work went into capturing the perspectives shared onstage; unfortunately for the production, the result is more of an unsettling mess than a powerful display.
The one-act, first produced by National Theatre of Great Britain in a co-production with Birmingham Repertory Theatre, takes place in one room: the common area of what is assumed to be a municipal shelter. The occupants of four different units interact within the space, often trying (and barely managing) to avoid the awkwardness of living in such close quarters. The cast of characters is comprised of an elderly woman and her son, a family of four, a young man, and a woman looking to make a phone call. As their lives and priorities intersperse, a blurry picture of humanity appears. LOVE does not make it pretty, though. This is not a retelling of community come together or heroic struggle and miracles. It is grim. It is hopeless. It is a complex story desperate to be heard.
Is it received? At the Thursday evening performance I attended, absolutely not. Pockets of audience members on all sides of the theatre made audible comments throughout conflicts, including sentiments of distaste or disagreement as characters made tough choices. Add this to the general phones buzzing, candies falling to the ground, swiping through DMs (if you were on Tinder in the second row…seriously?) and it’s hard to think anyone took much depth out of the piece entirely. It’s a shame that the trying ensemble, committed to the text, performed for a black hole of theatregoers.
The cast of LOVE | Photo: Stephanie Berger Photography/Park Avenue Armory
There’s not much of an excuse for the Upper East Side couples continuing their discussions after actors have taken to the playing space, but it’s not surprising audiences were less than willing to participate. Across the board, the stories in the play and the situations presented onstage are difficult and instincts say to recoil. The prolonged sounds of utensils scraping against dishware as a family shares a can of soup with not near enough to go around. Then, there’s the unfortunate timing of bodily functions and the embarrassment an elderly woman experiences in the aftermath. LOVE surpasses realism and immersive contemporary drama to become something of an endurance piece, asking just how cacophonous can the sounds become, or just how dark can a scene change blackout be? Its attempt to take important stories and themes and push them over the edge, visceral and onerous without break, is likely a representation of the burdens taken on by these sheltered families. But who is this for? Those struggling and in need or those who will go to dinner on Park Ave after this?
After all, the production is housed in the Wade Thompson Drill Hall, an eerie and hollow space bizarre to the uninitiated. To their credit, designers Marc Williams (lighting) and Natasha Jenkins (set, as well as costume) have worked to make something of the vast darkness, including the extension of flickering LED lights (to signify dilapidated dwellings) into the audience and the seating of the audience back on to the stage. Actors freely move within the audience’s aisles in a postmodern plea for connection. Ultimately, the matte production is glossed over, a clashing combination of questions, concerns, and little space for comment.