LOVE at Park Avenue Armory Will Try To See Right Through You
LOVE, written and directed by Alexander Zeldin, is a frustrating piece. In a program note, Zeldin describes the process of using a housing report, firsthand testimonies, and workshops with shelter occupants to create LOVE. It’s clear a great deal of work went into capturing the perspectives shared onstage; unfortunately for the production, the result is more of an unsettling mess than a powerful display.
The one-act, first produced by National Theatre of Great Britain in a co-production with Birmingham Repertory Theatre, takes place in one room: the common area of what is assumed to be a municipal shelter. The occupants of four different units interact within the space, often trying (and barely managing) to avoid the awkwardness of living in such close quarters. The cast of characters is comprised of an elderly woman and her son, a family of four, a young man, and a woman looking to make a phone call. As their lives and priorities intersperse, a blurry picture of humanity appears. LOVE does not make it pretty, though. This is not a retelling of community come together or heroic struggle and miracles. It is grim. It is hopeless. It is a complex story desperate to be heard.
Is it received? At the Thursday evening performance I attended, absolutely not. Pockets of audience members on all sides of the theatre made audible comments throughout conflicts, including sentiments of distaste or disagreement as characters made tough choices. Add this to the general phones buzzing, candies falling to the ground, swiping through DMs (if you were on Tinder in the second row…seriously?) and it's hard to think anyone took much depth out of the piece entirely. It’s a shame that the trying ensemble, committed to the text, performed for a black hole of theatregoers.
There’s not much of an excuse for the Upper East Side couples continuing their discussions after actors have taken to the playing space, but it’s not surprising audiences were less than willing to participate. Across the board, the stories in the play and the situations presented onstage are difficult and instincts say to recoil. The prolonged sounds of utensils scraping against dishware as a family shares a can of soup with not near enough to go around. Then, there’s the unfortunate timing of bodily functions and the embarrassment an elderly woman experiences in the aftermath. LOVE surpasses realism and immersive contemporary drama to become something of an endurance piece, asking just how cacophonous can the sounds become, or just how dark can a scene change blackout be? Its attempt to take important stories and themes and push them over the edge, visceral and onerous without break, is likely a representation of the burdens taken on by these sheltered families. But who is this for? Those struggling and in need or those who will go to dinner on Park Ave after this?
After all, the production is housed in the Wade Thompson Drill Hall, an eerie and hollow space bizarre to the uninitiated. To their credit, designers Marc Williams (lighting) and Natasha Jenkins (set, as well as costume) have worked to make something of the vast darkness, including the extension of flickering LED lights (to signify dilapidated dwellings) into the audience and the seating of the audience back on to the stage. Actors freely move within the audience’s aisles in a postmodern plea for connection. Ultimately, the matte production is glossed over, a clashing combination of questions, concerns, and little space for comment.
LOVE is now playing at Park Avenue Armory through March 25. For tickets and more information, click here.