‘Sanctuary City’ Off Broadway Review: A Gripping Look at Young People Caught in US Immigration Trap

Martyna Majok gives voice to a young man’s harrowing isolation

sanctuary city
Photo: Joan Marcus

Martyna Majok won the Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for her play “Cost of Living,” and quickly went on to surpass the excellence of that work with the far more complex and expansive “Queens,” about two generations of immigrant women being taken advantage of in an illegal basement apartment in Queens, New York.

Majok now gives us the world premiere of “Sanctuary City,” which opened Tuesday at the Lucille Lortel Theatre after being postponed at the New York Theatre Workshop for over a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With “Sanctuary City,” her fourth play, it’s clear that this playwright has no intention of repeating herself, except in the often gripping way in which she communicates a character’s harrowing isolation.

“Sanctuary City” opens with two teenage immigrants of color without legal documentation (Jasai Chase-Owens and Sharlene Cruz) fending for themselves in an American city (the script identifies it as Newark, New Jersey) that is anything but a sanctuary. She (identified as G in the credits) is crashing at his place (the male character is identified as B). She enters freezing cold through a window, and awkwardly asks if she can spend the night. In the first half of this 105-minute one-act play, Majok shuffles this window leitmotif with conversations about a mother’s return to her native country, the job perks of free food, feigning sickness to skip school, an abusive stepfather and an unlikely but cathartic date night at the prom, the word “prom” never mentioned.

In the script, the scenes are broken into seasonal categories: winter 2001, spring 2002, August 2002, spring 2003, etc. The script flows when reading it. On stage in performance, the experience is far more impressionistic, less linear. Many scenes aren’t so much scenes as they are a few sentences of dialogue. Isabella Byrd’s lighting indicates the ellipses — they’re asterisks in the script — but the constant dimming of lights does more than indicate a different time and place; it also disrupts the actors’ performances in a way that film editing, for instance, would not. Cruz and Chase-Owens are engaging performers, but aren’t always successful in negotiating the many abrupt jumps in the narrative.

“Sanctuary City” was directed by Rebecca Frecknall for its intended spring 2020 opening, but the credits now include “with remount direction by Caitlin Sullivan.” Under that unusual directing challenge, Cruz and Chase-Owens do settle into their performances when the play finally arrives at its central story. For reasons too complicated to explain here, the G character gets her U.S. citizenship, and she decides to marry the B character. Despite crashing many times in his bedroom, the two haven’t had sex and need to coordinate their stories of carnal knowledge to convince authorities that they’re a legitimate couple.

Then she goes to Boston for college, and he continues working at a restaurant, bringing home enough money to have his own apartment, in other words, the dream of every high school grad. That slight credibility problem aside, the couple’s talk of a relationship that never existed gives “Sanctuary City” the groundwork for a plot-heavy but well-constructed second half that plays out in real time without breaks.

A spoiler alert should not be necessary here. After all, when two teenagers of the opposite sex sleep together but don’t have sex, is the reason not obvious? Frecknall and Sullivan’s direction, however, turns the appearance of Henry (the very animated Austin Smith) into a surprise, if not a shock, one that drew gasps from the usually sophisticated NYTW audience. Really? In 2021, should the discovery of a character’s sexual orientation be handled as the Big Reveal?

Equally mangled is the three and a half years that G spends away at college. Back in the 20th century, when plays had two or more acts and typically lasted around 150 minutes, there was a thing called The Intermission to handle these kinds of big leaps in time. A change of wigs also helped. With no such intermission, Frecknall and Sullivan rely on Byrd’s busy lighting design to convey the jump from 2003 to 2006. The result is a mess: Cruz appears to have gotten stuck in a badly functioning time machine dropped into a disco.

We soon learn that no marriage has taken place but another committed romantic relationship has emerged. And the debate about what should happen next is alternately fascinating and heartrending and even scary when a threat to upend Henry’s promising career erupts. Most moving is when G and B once again rehearse their phony marriage interview only to have that dialogue segue seamlessly into what Henry and his lover have really experienced together.

A young gay undocumented immigrant like G has way too many bad options, not only for his own good but the good of Majok’s play. The fraught debate about what he should do leaves not enough room for the drama to develop. This much story needs more time to breathe.