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Studio Alumni Nicole Villamil: “Queens”

Congratulations to studio alumni Nicole Villamil. Nicole has the role of Isabela, in Queens, Martyna Majok’s opened-eyed and intriguing profile of contemporary immigrant women.

Nicole Villamil - Maggie Flanigan Studio Alumni - Nicole is in red jacket in cover photo

Maggie Flanigan Studio – Alumni Nicole Villamil – Call (917) 794-3878

Review: In ‘queens,’ 11 Immigrant Women and What They Left Behind

For at least its first act, Martyna Majok’s new play “queens” — uncapitalized for unknown reasons — is a knockout. That’s literally the case in the opening scene, in which someone gets punched in the face.

The next 60 minutes or so keep delivering cold-cocks of emotion and surprise as Ms. Majok sets up her story. It takes so long because the canvas is so large, eventually encompassing 16 years during which 11 immigrant women at various points come to live in an illegal basement apartment in capital-Q Queens.

The women are as different as their countries of origin: Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Afghanistan, Syria, Honduras. But all are escaping a “situation,” or hunting for a person who escaped one earlier.

In the case of Inna, the first woman we meet, it’s both. Her mother left her as a child in Odessa and has not been heard from since. The only clue to her whereabouts is a photograph of her standing in front of the building where most of “queens” takes place.

Nadine Malouf, Jessica Love, and Nicole Villamil at the broadway premiere of Queens

Nadine Malouf, Jessica Love, and Nicole Villamil

Did she, like the others, take refuge there? Or did she disappear forever into the maw of America? As Inna tries to unearth the answers she gets trapped in a situation of her own.

Ms. Majok is herself an immigrant, born in Poland. Her breakthrough play, “Ironbound,” produced at the Rattlestick in 2016, prefigured “queens” in dealing with the double disruption of being a woman who ventures, or is forced to flee, beyond the familiar discomforts of home.

More recently, in the excellent “Cost of Living,” seen at Manhattan Theater Club in 2017, disability stood in for geographical and cultural alienation. In that play, two characters chafe against the way that a wheelchair, like color or language, can be a marker of disfavored status within the larger, normative society.

But “queens,” which opened on Monday night in an LCT3 production at the Claire Tow Theater, is even more ambitious, if not as successful. When Inna (Sarah Tolan-Mee) arrives at the basement in 2017, the landlady, a Polish immigrant named Renia, recognizes her as someone who might be her own daughter, or herself. In a long flashback, we meet Renia (Ana Reeder) on the day she showed up in 2001 in desperate need. From there the story branches farther and farther afield.

Much of the first act, which establishes the play’s fractured chronology, takes place as that younger Renia is provisionally welcomed into a polyglot ménage that includes icy Pelagiya (Jessica Love), tight-lipped Aamani (Nadine Malouf) and furious Isabela (Nicole Villamil). Isabela is packing her bags before returning to Honduras, where her daughter is waiting and her mother is dying. It is typical of Ms. Majok’s wit and empathy that Isabela evaluates each item of clothing not in terms of dollars but in terms of the number of low-wage hours it took to earn — and the number of hours away from her daughter it represents. A sweater that cost two hours is too dear to leave behind.

The women are hilariously wary of the United States, of one another and especially of Renia, who won’t share her story. Still, the movement of the first act is from mistrust and recrimination to solidarity. When the roommates change into clubbing clothes to toast Isabela with whatever sad staples they can scrounge, the lamest farewell party ever becomes, briefly, one of the most joyous.

Playing both ends of the scale like that is a distinctive trick Ms. Majok uses to release emotion without sentimentality. These women are tough, and not in a glamorous way: Their expectation of mistreatment is no pose and no metaphor. They are angry at the world yet nurture that anger, recognizing that in it may be the beginning of progress. Certainly there is no progress without it.

This makes for thrilling writing. But as the play further complicates its story in the second and third acts, it loses control of its effects. We are offered too much information for the frame to contain, even if it’s vital: How Inna got from Ukraine to Queens after a six-month stop as a potential internet bride in Florida; what brought Renia to the basement and how she becomes its landlady. New characters come and go as well, their identities and stories blurred because they are played by the same actors who played the previous ones. After seeing “queens” and reading the script carefully I was still confused by many plot points.

Confusion can be salient, of course, in plays about confusion, whether moral or existential. But “queens” isn’t squishy that way, so its confusion is subtractive. It may in fact be the result of cutting to keep the production under three hours. (The timing of the acts is lopsided.)

If so, I think Ms. Majok would have done better to expand her scope rather than contract it. The material is so important, so ripe and so multi-stranded that it might have been better off as a marathon or a mini-series. Squeezed into its current shape it can do little more than check the boxes on its trenchant to-do list.

This puts excess pressure on the production to provide coherence, but Danya Taymor’s direction opts for suggestiveness rather than clarity. The powerful set design by Laura Jellinek — dominated by a vast ceiling that lowers and lifts over the stage to create feelings of containment and freedom — is more successful in sculpting moods than in defining space or telling the story. (You are never sure where the doors to this basement are.) Action specified in the script is not always clear onstage: a problem of focus. And the fine performances, especially by Ms. Reeder and Ms. Tolan-Mee, dissipate under the excessive dramatic pressure.

For all that, “queens” is still a notable work, or maybe several. It strikes at the heart of the immigrant experience, which is often unfair, one way or another. “You? Are lucky,” Renia tells one of the women. “Which means that maybe other people: not so much.”

Welcome to America.

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