Pigs shriek. We hear the squealing herds of swine as they face the knife — part of a massive culling to control the spread of a virus. These earsplitting, nerve-jangling sounds recur in the more introspective moments of Useless, Saviana Stanescu’s new play about human trafficking. They’re hallucinations, expressing the terror felt by Omy (Andy Phelan), a mentally impaired young man who has been ferried from his (unspecified) native country to a gritty corner of New Jersey.
Now, in a safe house under the watch of Kora (Ana Grosse) and Chris (Steven Rishard), Omy — dispatched by his impoverished family of pig farmers — is about to be carved up himself. Someone’s paid top dollar for this migrant’s kidney — and criminal minders stand to make a lot on their cargo. “It’s called the food chain, baby,” Chris says, cutting into his pork-cutlet dinner.
In those exhilarating porcine moments, Useless threatens to become a much darker drama than ultimately ensues. Stanescu’s plays often touch on the bewilderment of characters caught between cultures and homelands, and Useless is hardly naive about trafficking. We learn, for instance, that Kora was herself forced into brutal prostitution, later marrying one of her keepers. Although her exposition-encumbered drama emphasizes hope, Stanescu’s disturbing prophecies are far more believable. “They killed all the pigs,” Omy says during his shudder-inducing dream, “and now some of us must replace them — like a human farm.”