Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Diego

La Jolla Playhouse
Review by Bill Eadie | Season Schedule

Also see Bill's review of Dr. Seuss's The Lorax

Jolly Abraham, Xochitl Romero, Brenda Meaney,
and Leslie Fray

Photo by Jim Carmody
Playwright Martyna Majok is an immigrant to the United States. In her new work, Queens, Ms. Majok puts groups of immigrant women into an illegal basement apartment in the New York borough of Queens and eloquently portrays their struggles, which are many. Even so, Ms. Majok loves these women—and their struggles. Perhaps, at this point in her play's development, a little too much.

The apartment is a large room that has been subdivided into two bedrooms and a common room that also accesses a bathroom and a small kitchen. There's some privacy but not a lot. The women come and go as residents of the apartment. They work in low-skill, low-paying jobs, such as caretakers for the sick or nannies for children, house cleaners, or in factory sweat shops. They are commonly exploited, sometimes financially, such as being cheated on wages, sometimes sexually.

They come from different cultures and they are all learning English, with varying degrees of success. They share a common hope that living and working in the U.S. will eventually mean that they will have better lives.

Six actors (Jolly Abraham, Leslie Fray, Rae Gray, Brenda Meaney, Melissa Miller, and Xochitl Romero) portray women who live in the apartment during the period 2001-2017. The play starts at the most contemporary time and flashes back to different groups of residents. The constant is Renia (Ms. Meaney), who, like Ms. Majok, immigrated from Poland. Renia was once one of the residents, but eventually she came to own the entire building.

Or, so she tells a young woman named Inna (Ms. Gray), who knocks on the door, picks a fight, and eventually slugs Renia. Instead of becoming angry, Renia invites Inna to move in. At first, she demands a daily rent payment, but eventually she invites Inna to stay at no charge—as long as she doesn't tell the others about the bargain.

Why Renia, who has gone over time from vulnerable to tough, would make such an offer becomes clearer as the play progresses. But there are no easy answers here. Perhaps Inna was right to slug Renia, perhaps not. I never saw a clear answer to that question emerge.

And, to me, that seems to be the problem. The play wants to show how forces that keep immigrants, particularly women, from moving ahead are ones that have been present for some time. But the time shifts intended to illustrate this point, as well as to tell the story, don't yet entirely make sense. And the variety of characters played by four of the women get confusing. I suspect that there's a fine play in there, but it's not on display yet. Ms. Majok has shown willingness to make substantial changes to serve her dramaturgy: the April world premiere at LCT3 in New York was three acts, and this version is two acts, for example. Perhaps loving these characters a bit less can help present them to audiences in a streamlined but more effective manner.

The Playhouse has certainly given Queens a first-rate production, starting with Carey Perloff's sensitive direction, resulting in first-rate performances. David Israel Reynoso has provided an utterly stunning scenic design that situates the basement apartment in its building, as well as on its exterior block, where some scenes occur. The design needs a virtuoso lighting design to succeed, and Lap Chi Chu has provides one. Denitsa Bliznakova's variety of costumes serve to bring out the characters' native cultures and values. Mark Bennett's sound design helps keep the actors' accented English (coached by Christine Adaire) clearly heard.

I wish Ms. Majok well as she continues to develop what may become a very significant piece of theatre. Audiences may come away confused and frustrated with the current production, however.

Queens, through July 29, 2018, at La Jolla Playhouse's Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla CA. Tickets are available by calling 858-550-1010 or visiting Performance times are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30pm; Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm; Sundays at 7pm; and matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm.