THE FIRST IMAGE of the play is a girl on a fire escape. She’s cold and anxious to get inside; the boy helps her climb through his window. Somewhere in our collective imagination, West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet have turned the fire escape into shorthand for star-crossed romance. Even long after the play has changed (and changed again), our minds hang on to that first moment to say, “Here is young love.”
Martyna Majok’s Sanctuary City contains other romances, other yearnings. It also breaks its own heart, pivoting in the middle from experimental high-wire act to tendentious issue drama. There are moments in the last section that seems to belong to another writer entirely, and characters welsh on promises the playwright made on their behalf. Why does Majok do it? I’m feeling my way here (I’m still bruised), but I think it may be because theater’s vicarious heartache isn’t enough for her. To tell the story she wants to tell, she’s willing to let us fall out of love with the play itself.
The stage seems to be in its raw state. Tom Scutt’s set—black mesh on the walls, a large empty platform, a ghost light pushed to one side—has the messy darkness of backstage in disarray. A reedlike young man, Jasai Chase-Owens, stands looking out and up, and the little Lucille Lortel Theatre seems to tower above him. The young woman, played by Sharlene Cruz, appears, asking to be let in. The setting is Newark in 2006, but it’s also abstract: The script simply lists the characters as B and G (Boy and Girl); there are almost no props. Between bursts of dialogue, a bank of lights flares, blinding the audience, so the actors seem to change position almost magically. Occasionally, we see an exchange twice or out of order, or a sequence hopscotches through time. The characters’ speech is fast and overlapping, Mametian interruptaspeak delivered at first without inflection, then with verve and humor. A year might get covered this way in moments, a flip-book of snapshots:
B: What are you gonna say at school?
About yer face—
G: I’m not goin.
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