They came here from Honduras and Poland. From Ukraine, Syria, Afghanistan. The women who inhabit queens, Martyna Majok’s perceptive and poignant drama, are newly arrived immigrants from these places. The play depicts them sharing the basement of an apartment in Queens at various times during the sixteen years its story sporadically covers. They hold down crummy jobs. They don’t speak English well. They miss their homes and families. Some of their lives interconnect. Some go separate ways.
An exceptional seven-member ensemble portrays more than a dozen women of various nationalities in LCT3’s sterling premiere of queens that is currently staged — but only until the end of this week — at the Claire Tow Theater, above the Beaumont Theater, at Lincoln Center. Majok’s play offers a sensitive but scarcely sentimental look at a number of women who strive for a fresh existence in America even as they reluctantly let go of their former worlds.
“If was people enough for you back home, then you would not be here,” says Renia (Ana Reeder), who nevertheless pines for a daughter she left behind in Poland. “So maybe actually, those things you leave, maybe you did not really need. You gotta lose some things sometimes to make room for better life. To move forward. Faster. To progress. Progress means to forget.” Majok frames this nonlinear story more or less around Renia, who owns the entire Queens building as the play opens in 2017, but in a flashback to late 2001 is seen arriving in its basement as a timid, penniless immigrant. Three other women from different countries are already renting space in these crummily furnished quarters. As a party spontaneously begins, drinks are poured and rueful or dryly funny fragments from their lives and those of others they’ve known are revealed. The women talk about their modest aspirations, which are darkened by ongoing anxieties during these months in the immediate wake of 9-11 when, as one of them remarks, “everything smells like people in fire.”
During the play’s second act, a scene occurring in Odessa in 2016 observes a couple of friends who, for different reasons, want to move to America and are prepared to marry American strangers to do that, but go about it differently. One of them, Inna (Sarah Tolan-Mee), then is shown six months later trudging on foot out of Florida to escape an abusive man. Eventually Inna finds her way to Renia’s basement, but Renia is now living upstairs — and her attitude has changed since 2001. “I’m American now,” she declares, having closed down the premises to newcomers.
Although, later in the play, some rapid shifts in time may prove confusing to viewers, there is no denying the vivid nature of the appealing characters whom Majok creates, such as the smart Afghan writer (Nadine Malouf) who mourns, “My language does not stand so big here.” The playwright’s deployment of speech is especially impressive. Majok composes most of the dialogue in varying kinds of broken English that at times can become lyrical in their cadences. “If someone speaks English with no accent, or if they sound French, German, something like people what really don’t need to come here, then is different,” says Renia. “But I open my mouth and whole history my country pours out. How much money I have, wars, history, everything pours out.”
Danya Taymor, the director, cultivates lovely performances from her actors, who also include Jessica Love, Nicole Villamil, Zuzanna Szadkowski, and Andrea Syglowski, some of whom adeptly depict more than one character. Insightfully dressed by Kaye Voyce, they speak in variegated accents that never obscure the substance of what the women have to say. Taymor and set designer Laura Jellinek wisely present abstract visuals that do not confine the story in a realistic-style cellar, although for some time a low ceiling ominously hovers over the action. Bold lighting by Matt Frey lends heft and moods to the scenes.
Majok may be known best in New York for her gritty Ironbound, which Rattlestick Playwrights Theater staged with Marin Ireland in 2016. A more complex drama crafted with a larger scope, queens again displays Majok’s fine sensibilities with wordplay and her excellence at creating everyday characters who are heartbreakingly alive.