Earnest ‘Runaway’ Has Character, But Only Crawls

L to R: Chris Ogren and Yohanna Florentino in “The Runaway.” Photo by Karalyn Factor.
L to R: Chris Ogren and Yohanna Florentino in “The Runaway.” Photo by Karalyn Factor.

BY PUMA PERL | Written by Donna Spector and directed by Shela Xoegos, “The Runaway” is based on the life of the late April Savino (1969–1988), who, for the last five years of her life, lived in the tunnels beneath Grand Central Terminal. It is immediately apparent, from the style and costumes, that the play is set several decades back. Unfortunately, that is where the authenticity starts and ends.

A plainclothes cop stands on a subway platform as the play opens. He stands there. He stares. The main character, played by Yohanna Florentino, is a 16-year-old girl called Jose. She enters, runs across the stage, asks him for a cigarette, and collapses in his arms. We don’t know why he was waiting for her, or why he seems obsessed with her, following her, visiting her mother, giving her money. We don’t know why she collapsed in the opening scene, as it is never explained.

We do know that she has run away for an assortment of the usual reasons. Her mother, Lani, a seemly decent hard-working woman with upwardly mobile aspirations, has repeatedly chosen abusive men above her daughter, at one point explaining that you “need the man to make a family.” In the one scene where you can feel the yearning between Jose and Lani, she excitedly tells her that she has a solution. Jose thinks her mother wants her to come home, but her plan is to assuage her guilt by boarding Jose with another relative. “In Brooklyn Heights,” she assures her. “You’ll have to sleep on the couch but it’s a good neighborhood.”

Jose, naturally, gets involved with Carlos, 19, who at first appears as fragile and damaged as she is, but a few tokes on a crack pipe turn him into a vicious, violent thug. She clings to him, needing to believe that he loves her, and joining him in his crack addiction. And here is another fatal failure. Jose is sixteen, a minor. Why wasn’t she sent to juvie or court or assigned a guardian the minute she fell on the cop? Why did the cop threaten to kick Carlos’ ass instead of arresting him for statutory rape? Any of these actions could have saved us two hours of poor plot devices and repetitious dialogue.

A. R. Cooksey and Marjorie Conn, respectively, play a transgender black woman and a blind white woman, who also live in the tunnels. Their acting and characterizations are the strongest elements of the play. While they could have been used as comedic devices — one wears huge pink curlers throughout and the other talks endlessly about life at the Biltmore — they are the most fully drawn characters and the only ones who appear most capable of human relationships. We are left to draw our own impressions of maintaining their backstories and given quite a bit of material to work with. By the time the overly long play ended, I had stopped listening to the dialogue. With no real turning points or resolution of conflict, the outcomes had already been phoned in.

Runtime: 2 hours, 10 minutes. A Xoregos Performing Company presentation; a FringeNYC production. Thurs., Aug. 18, 4:15pm; Sun., Aug. 21, 2:30pm; Sat., Aug. 27, 9:30pm. At Teatro SEA at The Clemente (107 Suffolk St., btw. Rivington & Delancey Sts.). For tickets ($18), visit fringenyc.org.