Darja, the central character in Ironbound, never leaves a barren bus stop on an ugly stretch of post-industrial New Jersey, but Martyna Majok’s rich play about a poor immigrant feels always on the move, determined to take us on a sad and funny adventure that shifts back and forth over 22 years.
What gives Ironbound much of its vigor is the mesmerizing way that it unfolds, revealing bit by bit a picture of this complicated woman — her men, her mistakes, her contradictions, her strengths…her story.
The play, which has opened at Rattlestick Playwright’s Theater in a joint production with the Women’s Project Theater debuted at the 2015 Women’s Voices Theater Festival in Washington, DC. It touches on such current hot issues as immigration, income inequality, domestic violence, drug addiction, intolerance – all presented obliquely. But the issue that looms largest over Ironbound is one that the Sunday talking heads do not discuss – the search for love.
Darja (Marin Ireland) doesn’t seem all that interested in love when we first meet her, engaging in a shouting match with Tommy (Morgan Spector), who wants her to get in the car, while she’s insisting that she wait for the bus. It eventually becomes clear that Darja, a Polish immigrant who works as a cleaning lady, and Tommy, a postal worker, have been living together for seven years, and that, by hacking into his cell phone’s text messages, she has caught him cheating on her.
From the get-go, the playwright establishes her perfect pitch for the way her characters speak:
Tommy: “…if we were all perfect… who’d need to be Catholic.
We are Outta Control. And if you wanna crossify me for one little, man, after everything we’ve, everything I’ve done, for you, how many years?, if you wanna do that, Darja, then, I don’t know, man. I just don’t think you should do that, Darja.”
Darja asks Tommy what he will give her in order for her to stay with him.
“I could try to be more understanding,” Tommy replies.
“No. These it’s fake ideas,” she says harshly in her broken English. “Concrete, I need. Concrete.” She suggests he pay her $3,000.
In the next scene, Darja is at the same bus stop, but with another man, Maks (Josiah Bania, the only holdover in the four-member cast from the Women’s Theater Festival production.) Her attitude is at the other extreme; they can’t keep their hands off of one another. We eventually figure out that it is two decades earlier, and that Darja has followed Maks from Poland to America. Although broke, they seem giddy not just with one another but with the feeling of the almost unlimited possibilities of the future. Maks writes blues songs – in Polish — and wants to move to Chicago to become a star.
How did Darja go from a loving relationship to a calculated one? There is no clear answer, but all sorts of clues. The factory down the road from the bus stop where she works in one scene has been shuttered in another scene taking place years later. In that first scene between Darja and Maks, she tells him they need more money.
“Okay but what more I can do?” Maks replies. “I speak English. I have job and I work this all the time. And I am beautiful.”
“What this means, you…” Darja asks.
“So in America,” Maks continues, “if you beautiful, they give to you jobs. Take two people, put them next each other, both speak English, and, see?, our boss he take the beautiful. You can never be ugly or we will starve. Or fat. Never also be fat.”
There is one more man we see in Ironbound – Shiloh Fernandez in a delicious turn as a hip-hopped teenager, whose first impression on Darja and the audience is revealed as (hilariously) at odds with his actual identity.
There are two other men, unseen, and central to Darja’s misfortunes, whom we glimpsed in snippets of half-understood conversation about them.
Director Daniella Topol (who also directed the play at the Women’s Voices Theater Festival) is willing to keep us in semi-darkness, literally and metaphorically; there are no projections, for example, telling us the year in which a scene takes place. Justin Townsend’s set is deliberately bare and ugly, a place where nobody would linger if they could avoid it.
Ironbound is the name of a primarily Portuguese neighborhood in Newark, N.J., a once-industrial area criss-crossed with railroad tracks, now home to ethnic restaurants and working class families, including Italians and Polish. The playwright, who was born in Bytom, Poland and grew up in New Jersey, has a feel for people in such communities, and an understanding of how the trying times that we are living through force survival mode upon them, especially the women.
Ironbound is onstage through April 10, 2016 at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224 Waverly Place, New York, NY 10014. Details and tickets.
Ironbound by Martyna Majok . Directed by Daniella Topol . Scenic and Lighting Design: Justin Townsend . Costume Design: Kaye Voyce . Sound Design: Jane Shaw . Props Design: Zach Serafin . Dialects: Charlotte Fleck and Deb Hecht . Stage Combat, Unkle Dave’s Fight House . Production Management: Jeremy Duncan Pape . Production Stage Manager: Jaimie Van Dyke . Casting:Kelly Gillespie . Produced by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in association with Women’s Project Theater . Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.