Alexander Zeldin’s “Love” thrusts the audience — quite literally — into the common room of a facility for the homeless somewhere in modern Britain. Ticketgoers are seated on stage at the Park Avenue Armory, within inches of the performers, and the actors sometimes take a seat beside them, as if plopping themselves down in a chair that’s still within the drab-walled public space. (The run-down set is designed by Natasha Jenkins.)
We meet Colin (Nick Holder), a middle-aged caregiver long unemployed, and his increasingly incontinent mother, Barbara (Amelda Brown), who have spent a full year in this group home despite legal stipulations that their stay should not exceed six weeks.
We also meet Dean (Alex Austin) and his eight-months-pregnant wife, Emma (Janet Etuk), who are holed up in a tiny room together with Dean’s two children, the sullen rap-loving teenager Jason (Oliver Finnegan) and younger daughter Paige (Grace Willoughby and Amelia Finnegan alternate in the role), a plucky girl who recalls Olive from “Little Miss Sunshine” as she rehearses her routine in an upcoming nativity pageant.
Into the mix we also get too-brief glimpses of two refugees, a young bearded Syrian man (Naby Dakhli), whose arrival prompts Barbara to clutch her purse a little more tightly, and a Syrian woman in a hijab (Hind Swareldahab) who mentions a family she’s waiting to join her despite her failure to get any cellphone reception to check up on them. The two have a late-night exchange almost entirely in Arabic, one whose meaning becomes clear despite the lack of translation through their pantomimed gestures about their troublesome British neighbors. (One wishes these refugees had gotten more stage time.)
Zeldin and his company succeed in depicting the quotidian drama of shelter life: the squabbles over shared bathrooms, unwashed dishes in the common sink, who gets to use the bigger shelf in the refrigerator. The frictions sometimes escalate into real conflict — but never to the point where the cops must be called. What “Love” repeatedly emphasizes is a basic truth about many who fall victim to housing shortages: These are decent people trying their best in absolutely awful circumstances.
While there’s no facility manager or welfare officer anywhere on site, a real villain emerges in the callous capriciousness of unseen government bureaucrats. Colin waits five hours for a five-minute meeting with one housing official, only to be told there are no units available. Dean is booted off of government financial assistance after missing a job center appointment on the day he and his family were evicted from their apartment.
In most cases, we get only the sketchiest of backstories. We are meeting these characters where they’re at — in the midst of their struggle to make it through another day, to not lose their temper with people with the power to make their lives more difficult, to provide for themselves and for each other the best that they can. The extraordinary performances, understated and never actorly, reinforce the vérité quality of Zeldin’s script. (Many have appeared in the intimate drama in earlier incarnations in the U.K. as well on European tours.)
Despite the atmosphere of gloom, we are rewarded with flashes of lightness, even joy. Colin washes his mother’s hair in the common sink with dish soap, a tactile gesture of affection that provides real, if fleeting pleasure for both of them. Dean breaks down and visits a food bank, bringing back both holiday decorations and a dinner of canned soup that’s a big step up from the rice and toast they’ve been having. But even these moments of grace prove short-lived. (As Paige comments after emptying her bowl, “I’m still hungry.”)
“Love” culminates in an extraordinary fourth-wall-breaking scene that can only be seen as a direct challenge to the audience. After all that you have seen and heard, Zeldin seems to ask, can you still just sit there and remain an entirely passive observer? Will you really do nothing for these people?