NYTW Splits Sanctuary City with Flashes of Brilliance and Disbelief

Jasai Chase-Owens and Sharlene Cruz in Sanctuary City, at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. Photo: Joan Marcus

The In-Person Experience: NYTW’s Sanctuary City at the Lucille Lortel Theatre

By Ross

Split in two. In a flash of sound and light. Played out on a blank dark canvas. One could say that the world and the way it treats the immigrant is at fault, splitting these two central characters in two, leaving them flailing in the darkness, isolated, and possibly alone. By cruel unsuspecting circumstances beyond their control. By a nation that makes it difficult, in so many ways, to not be split, and chewed up. The same could also be said about Martyna Majok’s fascinating and intricate play, Sanctuary City, now playing at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, that starts out as one thoroughly captivating thing, and then snaps itself into something else entirely. The earlier shards of entanglement seem to be leading us somewhere electric and invigorating, unmasking inequality and unfairness within the system, in quick, sharp repetitiveness that echoes out time and the endless dark trap these two main characters feel ensnared in. It draws us in, the abruptness, especially as we hear the lines spoken over and over again, but with a different edge to each, building on one another with smart constructive chops into the thick air. The stage, designed by Tom Scutt (Broadway’s King Charles III), sets the abstract harshness up front, filling the bare space with one large platform that is utilized with a wild edgy abandonment. It is a play about a void, and an abandonment within a Sanctuary, and the systematic structure resonates that vibration with a deafening quiet.

The lights, strongly designed by Isabella Byrd (NYTW’s Light Shining in Buckinghamshire), pulsate to the sounds designed by Mikaal Sulaiman (Signature’s Fires in the Mirror), throwing large and intense shadows up the abstract fire escape and beyond. The energy is as sharp as the handsome young man, designated as ‘B’ in the cast list, who is passionately portrayed by Jasai Chase-Owens (Public’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream). He stands, forlorn, looking out into the world that is holding him down, and he has us almost immediately, engaged and curious. Then out in the stark void comes a tender playful plea from ‘G’, filling the air with the flickering of cold and discomfort. She is a similarly themed young woman, shivering in the empty space, asking to be let in. As portrayed by Sharlene Cruz (Cherry Lane’s The Climb), her need seems strong, and defiant. And their caring attachment somehow fills the room. They engage in a manner that feels so clearly comfortable and emotional, filled with love and care, but strangely not sexual in any way, shape or form.

Sharlene Cruz in Sanctuary City, at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. Photo: Joan Marcus

The sharpness begins quickly, slicing the air and the timelines with force, pushing us all forward with snippets of dialogue that repeat and redefine their communion. The sequences jump, bursting the formula wide open, demanding us to keep up and to pay close attention. It’s a killer energy, that keeps us on the edge of our seat, and fully connected to these two brave and determined souls, even as the world seems destined to rip them apart. They need one another, in a way that is obvious, like siblings and/or best friends, symbolically attached at the hip and willing to do almost anything for one another. The shifting bodily structures, especially the telling shared moments of sleeplessness, fill us with both dread and compassion for their union. They seem as connected as two friends could be, that is until life presents different opportunities and pathways, alongside some surprising legal and collegial twists that leave one behind, waiting on the other.

Emphasizing the Sanctuary City predicament with an assured stance, director Rebecca Frecknall (Almeida’s Summer and Smoke) uses the changes in their physical bodies and tone as indicators of connectedness and separation in the driving flashes of time. It’s a dramatic build, with an unsaid knowledge that trouble is brewing. We hear it in the writing, and we feel it in their form. The hints linger in the spoken wonderments about what B’s mother is thinking of the two, but the play drives forward with such assuredness that we get sucked into the dynamic void. That is until the lights go dark for longer than the norm, and when the light returns, ‘B’ stands there, like he did before, but something has dramatically changed. It’s quite shockingly evident in the air. He looks visibly, crazily, older, standing with a slumped edge that speaks volumes and weight. Three years have passed, we find out soon enough, and even though that platform hasn’t tilted, their worlds certainly have.

This section, the final one, feels like it’s been pulled out from a different play, one without the flashes of time and the juxtaposition of their bodies inside their relationship. The clues were there, doled out by Majok (Cost of Living) with a sparse ease, but anger clouds the horizon. That is until Henry, stoically portrayed by Austin Smith (Public’s Socrates) walks in carrying food and drink, throwing a curveball that some saw coming, and others did not. The scene continues on, forcing us to stay in this awkward moment, making us dive into the discomfort and the emotional baggage that exists, oddly enough, in this Sanctuary City formulation. It’s uncomfortable, but I can’t help thinking that the feeling is coming from within the writing, and not so much from the performances, nor the set-up. It doesn’t feel as authentic as the rest of the piece, but somewhat forced and artificial, in order to make a point or win an argument. I was sold before the split, and although I never disengaged, I did feel myself step back a bit, not believing as much in the verbal conflict as was first intended. The rattling was no surprise for me, but the debate fell flat. Is this the split between the idealized Sanctuary City and the reality or fantasy it breeds? The two parts feel seperated by misunderstanding, both literally, emotionally, and structurally, but it’s all still worth the trip to New York Theatre Workshop‘s Sanctuary City. And you don’t have to go through the tunnel to get there.

Jasai Chase-Owens and Sharlene Cruz in Sanctuary City, at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. Photo: Joan Marcus

NYTW‘s Sanctuary City is now playing at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, extended to October 17th. Click here for info and tickets.

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