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Missed opportunities abound in Sanctuary City. Following its July debut at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Pulitzer Prize winner Martyna Majok’s new play was imported to Arena Stage this October with its complete cast and creative team—and all of its shortcomings—intact. Majok’s script wants desperately to be an insightful, human-scale dramatization of an issue as old as the United States of America and as timely as its disunion: The willful dehumanization of immigrants and their status as perennial scapegoats for societal problems. But her ambition goes unrealized in the second hour. What begins as a propulsive and stylized two-hander deflates into little more than a maudlin love triangle.
Worse—forgive me for bringing geometry into this— it’s an obtuse love triangle, because the actor who eventually enters the story as the third character is far stronger than the two we’ve been watching. The tragedy of Majok’s scenario only registers if we can empathize with each of the lovers and feel our loyalties torn among them. Having one of them played by a performer whose acting runs rings around his two castmates does the playwright no favors.
Majok’s story follows two DREAMers, the children of undocumented immigrants, identified only as B and G (“Boy” and “Girl,” we infer), in Newark, New Jersey, over the course of the half-decade following Sept. 11. The two are in high school when the play opens, but G is frequently absent from class due to an unstable living situation—her mom has an abusive live-in boyfriend, which also means she crashes at B’s place many nights. The sleeping arrangements exacerbate the pair’s uncertainty over whether their relationship is evolving into a romantic one or something more akin to siblings.
Their high school years unfold over a series of rapid-fire scenes wherein patterns of affection—B bringing G assignments home from school, G bringing B meals from her food service job—recur months apart. After much hand-wringing over the price of the ticket, they attend their prom together. As B and G, Hernán Angulo and María Victoria Martínez capture the awkwardness of their adolescent emotions with warmth and charm. Curiously, they’re both far more persuasive in this section of the show than they are once the pace slows and they’re called on to perform a 40-minute scene as 21-year-olds in something approximating real time.
Eventually G and her mother become naturalized, allowing G to apply for college scholarships and other benefits. B remains limited in his prospects due to the constant threat of detention and deportation. The pair agree to marry so that B eventually can become naturalized too, and they begin preparing for a gauntlet of interviews and other challenges whereby immigration officials try to weed out such couples. Interlocutors ask intimate questions, testing each spouse’s knowledge of their partner that, based on the sampling we get here, many married couples would likely fail. Do immigration authorities really gauge the sincerity of green card applicants via a high-stakes version of The Newlywed Game? Apparently so.
Predictably, the bonds between B and G are tested when she leaves for college in Boston. While she’s gone, B becomes close with Henry (Kim Fischer), who complicates their plans. B and G’s reunion years later is the framework for the show’s underwhelming second half, wherein all of the playwright’s efforts to expose the cruelty of U.S. immigration policy boils down to G being jealous of the relationship B has embarked upon with Henry in her absence.
That’s a painful conflict, sure, but hardly the grand injustice Majok seems to have placed in her crosshairs. The performances here, however, are a bigger problem than the script, as neither Angulo nor Martínez dial back the over-caffeinated quality of their work in the show’s staccato first half to match the more contemplative tempo of the second. This has the regrettable effect of making them look like amateurs once Fischer makes his entrance, demonstrating full command of his body language while Angulo and Martínez fidget and prowl designer David Israel Reynoso’s modest apartment set like they don’t know what to do with themselves.
In an odd way, Sanctuary City is more hopeful than its downbeat denouement would seem to indicate: Again and again, the spiteful G tells Henry and B that same-sex marriage will never happen in the United States. That seemed like a safe prediction as recently as 2006, when the climax of the play is set—nine years before Obergefell v. Hodges made marriage equality the law of the land. But we the audience know the Obergefell ruling is coming, which undercuts some of Majok’s tragic portent. Then again, more recent rulings have shown us that federally enshrined rights can be un-enshrined, even after decades.
It’s not unthinkable that a subsequent production of Sanctuary City could encompass all this portent in persuasive miniature. But it’s going to need a stronger pair of actors in the roles of B and G to do it.
Martyna Majok’s Sanctuary City, originally directed by David Mendizábal and transferred direction by Cara Hinh, plays at Arena Stage through Nov. 27. arenastage.org. $56–$105.