There are a host of dramatic dos and don’ts onstage in Ironbound, Martyna Majok’s wryly bleak if sometimes plausibility-straining comedy of immigrant aspiration gone off the rails, which is now playing at Geffen Playhouse.
For example, do anchor your play with the resplendently fierce Marin Ireland, who here reprises her full-throttled and transforming performance as Darja, Majok’s steely, working-class Polish heroine, from Rattlestick Playwrights’ 2016 Off-Broadway’s production. In Ireland’s hands, the delicious poetic ironies of Darja’s fractured English and her big-hearted determination to hold onto her ever-shrinking scrap of an American dream in the face of Job-like adversity plays like an old-fashioned hymn to New World resolve.
However, unless you are Edward Albee or your characters are waiting for Godot, try not to set your time-leaping, naturalistic drama at a desolate Newark, New Jersey, bus stop. Literally neither here nor there, the bus stop (or subway platform or park bench) tends to be dramatically nowhere. Though it might appear to offer emblematic possibilities to a play that chronicles the emotional travails of Darja’s increasingly hardscrabble existence during two decades of the Garden State’s globalization-driven manufacturing decline, in practice, that’s a job better left to language. In Ironbound, the over-literal setting only paints Majok into awkward dramaturgical corners with decidedly diminishing returns.
But if one absolutely must have a city bus stop, then do hire the production design team of Tim Mackabee (set), Lap Chi Chu (lights) and Leon Rothenberg (sound) to bring it roaring to gritty life. The grim photorealism of Mackabee’s weedy, litter-strewn, urban freeway offramp, with its penitentiary-like cinderblock noise barrier, does metaphoric double duty as the existential no man’s land in which Darja finds herself trapped. The unnerving metal halide drone of the set’s lone streetlight as it flickers to sickly green life during the play’s opening moments is one of the eerily foreboding pleasures of director Tyne Rafaeli’s glossy production.
That’s when the twice-married, 42-year-old Darja takes the stage in full, tongue-twisting fury at her infidelity-prone, live-in postal worker boyfriend, Tommy (the fine Christian Camargo), in what is perhaps the evening’s strongest — and funniest — writing. What has triggered the row is Tommy’s ongoing sexual affair with Linda, the affluent but never-seen housewife for whom Darja also cleans house. Tommy has tracked Darja to the remote bus stop, which, because it offers a view of the shuttered paper factory where she once enjoyed a long-ago lost living wage, has become Darja’s go-to retreat during domestic crises.
But the calculating Darja has more in mind than mere reconciliation; she desperately needs $3,000 in order to search for her 22-year-old junkie son. He has again disappeared, this time with Darja’s car, and she frantically attempts to negotiate that figure with an incredulous and disapproving Tommy as the price for his betrayal.
Majok wastes no time in drilling into the mystery behind that maternal resolution by winding the clock back to the same bus stop and the 20-year-old Darja, who has recently followed husband Maks (the likable Josiah Bania) from Poland to Newark’s welcoming embrace. (Watching Ireland shed the years as effortlessly as she sheds Darja’s winter coat might be the most persuasive reason to see Ironbound.) Maks, however, has his heart set on Chicago, where he hopes to make music as a blues harmonicist, and he won’t allow Darja’s paper factory job or her pregnancy to get in the way of his dream. “Make one thing that’s yours,” Maks ironically urges her. “That nobody can take away.”
It is when the play later flashes forward a decade, again to the bus stop, to find a physically battered Darja taking refuge from her abusive second husband that the drawbacks to Majok’s choice of settings take center stage. Rather than repeating yet another unlikely roadside domestic scene, the playwright invents a sort of fairy-godfather twist on an old cliché by introducing Vic (an amiable Marcel Spears), a wealthy teen hustler from Montclair with a heart of gold, who comes to the stranger's aid.
But it’s a bus stop too far. The sheer outlandishness of the invention’s departure from the shared reality of the audience sends both the drama and Darja’s deepening dilemma collapsing into the kind of feel-good fantasy that used to be the weekly fare of old working-class sitcoms such as Roseanne or The Honeymooners.
Majok has admitted to basing Darja on her own mother’s immigrant odyssey. And if that has given Ireland one of the plummier women's roles of recent memory, it also suggests that the playwright may simply be too close to her subject for Ironbound to have mustered a literary gravitas commensurate to these dire, politically xenophobic times.
Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood; through March 4. (310) 208-5454, geffenplayhouse.org.