Review: SANCTUARY CITY is Off-Broadway at Its Best

Sanctuary City by Martyna Majok is presented by New York Theatre Workshop and playing at the Lucille Lortel Theatre through October 17th.

By: Sep. 21, 2021

Review: SANCTUARY CITY is Off-Broadway at Its Best While midtown has a celebratory vibe and cheers of "Broadway's Back!" ring with each new opening and re-opening, it is nice to go downtown, to a smaller, less gilded theater, and see a piece of art that is a bit grungier, less commercial, more experimental and edgy. Not that Broadway can't be these things (Pass Over, Is This A Room, Dana H.), but often the shows that define our conception of Broadway (like the recently re-opened Wicked and Chicago) certainly do not have those downtown vibes I have been craving. New York Theater Workshop's production of Sanctuary City (a holdover from their 2019-2020 season), however, perfectly scratches my Off-Broadway itch.

Sanctuary City, the latest from Pulitzer Prize winner Martyna Majok, offers a masterful and moving story of two immigrant teenagers living in Newark in 2001-2006. We are reminded of the politically tense moment with a few heavy-handed references to 9/11, which stood out in a play that was otherwise so subtly written. Over the course of the play one of the characters becomes naturalized and is able to go to college while the other remains undocumented, stuck working at a restaurant under the table. The piece offers an insightful and painful glimpse into the many ways this country mistreats immigrants and excludes them from advancement opportunities. The characters are never given names, just B and G, signifying their genders; the text purposefully keeps the specifics of their identities and where they come from open, allowing for flexibility in casting and interpretation.

For this production, the two main characters are played by Jasai Chase-Owens and Sharlene Cruz, both of whom give captivating performances, dexterously navigating the difficult, face-moving prose with expert ease. The pair has such a rapport that they afford this very modern play the gravitas of a Strindberg or Ibsen drama, where a leading male and female character spar for power and sympathy in a twisted tango. Chase-Owens and Cruz craft characters that are vulnerable but guarded, tough but in need of each other--a perfectly symbiotic relationship. Their acting, especially Cruz's, is flawless; it is rare that a pair of actors are so strong that they give off an impression that together they could handle any play.

Sanctuary City explores various cycles and patterns: of coming together and coming apart, of hurt and healing, of being stuck and moving on, of dreaming and being disappointed. Much like a Henry James novel, the majority of the scenes don't depict actual plot events, but discussions afterwards. Because of this, the play centers emotional processing and the bond that B and G share instead of sentimental or tragic plotting. The two have such a powerful relationship and often speak in shorthand to each other; a large portion of the dialogue in the play is cut off and includes ellipses, Pinter-esque gaps where the two know what is being implied without it being explicitly stated. Some of this allows Majok to keep the play flexible, but the majority of it is a characterological choice, a fundamental part of the play's dramaturgy.

Review: SANCTUARY CITY is Off-Broadway at Its Best

Structurally, this play experiments with two different types of durational performance. The first half of the play spans the pair's senior year of high school and the scenes shift rapidly, often jumping back and forth in time and highlighting moments that happen over and over, as in one scene where they repeatedly say goodnight to each other. For this section, the constant temporal scene shifts are signaled with sharp light cues. The lighting design, by Isabella Byrd, in many ways defines this play, and becomes a major character. Likewise, Rebecca Frecknall's direction (Caitlin Sullivan is credited as the "remount director"), in coordination with the light cues, feels like choreography, crafting poetry in the swift movements of Chase-Owens and Cruz as they silently and deftly move about the stage, popping into new positions with each snappy light cue. The almost bare set, a raked platform designed by Tom Scutt (who also did the minimalist costumes), provides a great canvas for Frecknell's balletic directing, which moves more in gesture than realism. One particularly poignant moment occurs when B and G are getting ready for prom and have a scene of dialogue about attempting to fasten a boutonniere, but Frecknell blocks the scene so they stand at opposite sides of the platform, slowly walking towards each other, making no attempt to literalize the action being discussed.

The second half of the play, which jumps ahead four years to G's senior year of college, takes place in real time, over the course of a single night at B's apartment. While the first half accelerates by and is punctuated with a massive number of light cues, the second half feels intentionally stagnant and static, forcing us to slow down and suffer through one extremely difficult conversation between Chase-Owens, Cruz, and a third actor, the talented Austin Smith (whose exact role/involvement I won't divulge). The two halves have separate structures, separate dramaturgies, separate rules, separate lighting styles, separate pacing, but it is this exact tension that makes the durational experiment work so well.

While the first ten minutes or so of the play can feel jarring and overwhelming with so many rapid-fire scene shifts and light cues, once the audience adjusts to the world of the play, it is glorious. This transition into the play could have been eased by the playwright, director, and design team, but the overall effect was still successful. Similarly, the second half can feel a bit long at times, but maybe that's the point. I wondered how long this fight could go and if the scene would change or jump, and was denied. I, like the characters, was stuck.

Sanctuary City is one of those rare plays where all the individual elements of theater--excellent playwrighting, spot-on performances, gorgeous design, and exquisite direction--combine to create a piece that works extraordinarily well and is deeply effective. The play is a perfect one for our times, a masterclass of what the downtown experimental scene has to offer, and a glowing example of why off-Broadway is such an important part of the theatrical ecosystem, a needed counterpoint to the bright lights of Broadway.


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