Whereas the reopening of Broadway has been largely coordinated and highly publicized, the reopening of Off-Broadway, including its many prestigious not-for-profit theaters, is going forward much more slowly and unevenly. But like Broadway, Off-Broadway is returning with long-running commercial hits, all new shows, and shows that were in the works and scuttled due to the pandemic.
“Sanctuary City,” Martyna Majok’s new drama about how the close friendship of two young immigrants is imperiled by their different legal statuses, has finally opened Off-Broadway with its original three member cast. When the March 2020 shutdown began, the production (produced by New York Theatre Workshop at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in the West Village) was still in previews. In fact, the programs now being given to theatergoers were printed for the original run.
Majok was relatively unknown before she won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for “Cost of Living,” which explores a man and a woman with serious physical disabilities (who are intended to be portrayed by disabled actors). In “Sanctuary City,” Majok once again focuses on a segment of the population that has rarely been explored in American theater: undocumented youths who were brought to the U.S. as children, better known as “Dreamers.”
Running 100 minutes without intermission, “Sanctuary City” begins with B (Jasai Chase-Owens) and G (Sharlene Cruz) as students at a Newark high school immediately after 9/11. When B’s mom decides to move back home, B remains in the U.S. without legal status and without any future prospects beyond underpaid under-the-table jobs. On the other hand, G becomes a citizen after her mother passes the naturalization test, making G eligible to receive financial aid to attend college in Boston.
As graduation nears, G agrees to marry B so he can obtain a green card, and the two go so far as to practice the kinds of questions that they would be asked during interviews by immigration officials. However, before any wedding is held, G leaves for college and avoids coming home for three and a half years.
Whereas the first half of the play is a relentless, jagged collage of short snippets, the second half is centered around a single scene in which B and G confront whether they will actually go forward with their plan, reflecting how their lives have been upended by politics and public policy. They are eventually joined by Henry (Austin Smith), B’s boyfriend and a law school student, who is mistrustful of G.
As directed by Rebecca Recknall (with remount direction by Caitlin Sullivan), “Sanctuary City” makes for a compelling contemporary drama that has enigmatic characters, rising intensity, vigorous argumentation, timely themes, and an underlying sense of humor and compassion. This is the kind of challenging and rewarding drama that dedicated theatergoers such as myself missed attending throughout the pandemic.
“Sanctuary City” runs at the Lucille Lortel Theatre through Oct. 10. 121 Christopher St., nytw.org.