‘Love’ gives a theatrical voice to the homeless with humor and heartbreak
In their book Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, the economist Anne Case and Nobel Prize winner Angus Deaton closely tracked the phenomenon of members of the white working class dying from suicide, drug overdoses and alcohol-related illnesses. It is an empirically-grounded look at the problem of poverty in the United States.
Poverty, By America, by the Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond, is more of a manifesto. It urges readers to conduct a personal audit of their lives and become “poverty abolitionists” by, among other things, withholding our money from businesses with unfair labor practices.
These are the two most common approaches to discussions of poverty in this country: straightforward reporting or reform-minded exhortations. Rarely do we encounter a work about the poor and unhoused that neither deals in simple facts and statistics, nor takes up their cause as a rallying cry, but simply grants them the dignity to simply exist as they are.
Rarely do we encounter a work that simply grants the poor the dignity to simply exist as they are.
“Love,” a play by Alexander Zeldin that just finished its New York debut on March 25, is one such work. Staged in the Park Avenue Armory’s hulking Wade Thompson Drill Hall, “Love” is a mimetic drama that explores the frictions that arise among a group of families and transitory individuals living in a temporary housing facility. The play unfurls in a few days leading up to Christmas and quietly accrues its power from its hyperreal design and direction as well as the way that it purposefully tarries with the quotidian.
Mr. Zeldin, who started writing the play in 2014 and directs the production at the Armory, workshopped parts of it with individuals who experienced homelessness. Two of the people whom he interviewed via a housing charity in the U.K. starred in the 2018 BBC film adaptation of “Love.” “I wanted to write a family play that would talk about something universal, yet very specific to a situation that was emblematic of our time,” Mr. Zeldin said in a video about the creative process behind “Love.” “In the U.K., when I was beginning to work on the play, there was this incredibly big idea of austerity—blaming those who have the least for the ills of society.”
That idea planted the seed for “Love.” As with his other plays, “Love” deals with themes that transcend cultural boundaries—the immiseration of low-wage work, precarity and homelessness—but never loses sight of the individuals that anchor the story.
“Love” is firmly rooted in the stories of two families. There’s Dean (Alex Austin), a 31-year-old father of two kids, and his partner Emma (Janet Etuk), who is studying to be a massage and wellness therapist. The family was recently evicted from their former home when the landlord “put the rent up, like, overnight,” as Emma says. The pair, along with Dean’s young children from a former relationship, Paige (played alternately by Amelia Finnegan and Grace Willoughby) and Jason (Oliver Finnegan), are crammed into a single room, upstage, that barely accommodates them all.
“Love” deals with themes that transcend cultural boundaries—the immiseration of low-wage work, precarity and homelessness—but never loses sight of the individuals that anchor the play.
Living next door are Colin (Nick Holder), a burly 50-year-old man, and his frail and elderly mother Barbara (Amelda Brown). He works as her caretaker, shuttling her to the bathroom, preparing her breakfast, and washing her hair. Two other individuals, Tharwa (Hind Swareldahab) and Adnan (Naby Dakhli), refugees from Sudan and Syria respectively, intermittently flit into the scenes. They speak nervously in English and more fluently in Arabic.
The play is streaked with moments of hilarity (Paige prepares for a nativity, much to the annoyance of Jason) and despair (Emma, 33 weeks pregnant, worries that she will give birth before finding a permanent dwelling) while a pilot light of empathy burns softly in the background for all of 90 minutes. In a program note for “Love,” Mr. Zeldin notes that he “found inspiration in the works of John Steinbeck, but also in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans, in their stories of love, life, and family in times of crisis.”
To Zeldin’s credit, watching the play never feels like consuming a porridge of nutritious oats.
Originally produced by the National Theatre of Great Britain, “Love” has since toured in 10 countries, “from a warehouse on the port in Belgrade to the Teatro Argentina in Rome, an exquisite Italian Theatre where the Barber of Seville was premiered,” Mr. Zeldin told me in an email interview. Transferring the play to the Armory entailed “sizing up” the play to fit the space. This has lent an “epic quality” to the show that “almost needed several years to find and be ready for,” he said.
“Love” is the middle work in a triptych of plays called “The Inequalities,” which tell the stories of people living in limbo or holding precarious jobs. “Beyond Caring” (2014), the first play in the trilogy, focuses on a group of contract workers employed as cleaners in a sausage factory. “Faith, Hope and Charity” (2019) is set in a food bank and community center on the brink of closure. “There is a thematic link in the trilogy,” Mr. Zeldin said. “All three plays deal with the impact of social violence, inequality on intimate life, and broadening out, I hope, to a wider sense of being alive in our time.” “Beyond Caring” has been staged in Chicago with Lookingglass Theatre, and Mr. Zeldin says he would love to see “Faith, Hope and Charity” reach a U.S. audience.
'That is where theater lives—not on stage, not in the audience, but in the infinite possibility between each and every one of us.'
“Love” received stellar reviews. Jesse Green of The New York Times called it “a great piece of theater—funny, beautifully staged, and with the kind of excitement that retunes your attention to tiny heartbreaks instead of just huge ones.” The production leaves its house lights on and seats a portion of the audience on stage. That we clearly take in hundreds of theatergoers (premium seats go for $168) along with the actors for the duration of the show is clearly part of the point. As Desmond would say, it makes us see that we are part of the problem, but to Mr. Zeldin’s credit, watching the play never feels like consuming a porridge of nutritious oats.
Rather, the experience of watching it is as immersive as reading a novel. Mr. Zeldin, who has elsewhere discussed the influence of opera on his directing style, said that “the question, in making a piece of theater, is not what are the characters going to say, but what the silence is going to feel like.” The script for “Love” is a slight 50 pages, but the silences in the play are deployed strategically and pointedly as an acupuncturist’s needles. “Theater is sculpting air between people,” Mr. Zeldin said. “That is where theater lives—not on stage, not in the audience, but in the infinite possibility between each and every one of us.”
When asked about his inspirations, Mr. Zeldin cited theater luminaries Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne as well as the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard (who found “a way of writing experience in a new way”) and the British author Rachel Cusk (for her “attempts to give form to experience that seems to sit in the shadows”). “There is really no limit to how miraculous theater can be in any time,” he said. “The question is what to do with the form—which is thousands of years old—and how it can be at once bitingly immediate. Theatre lives in that tension, between an ancient history and living tradition, and the necessity, inherent to the form, to be immediate and in the present.”
“Love” closed its New York theatrical debut at the Park Avenue Armory’s Wade Thompson Drill Hall on March 25.