‘Ironbound’ is not really a Dallas kind of play. We want winners; losers are best forgotten. And ‘Ironbound,’ currently getting its area premiere from Kitchen Dog heater, is not sleek or splashy or pseudo-hip. It’s much like its main character: a Polish immigrant woman with a cruddy job but with a biting sense of reality and humor. Stuck at a bus stop, her bitter honesty is all this battered survivor has got left: “I came here after Iron Curtain fell,” she says. “And got here just as American Dream fell in.”
So ‘Ironbound’ is basically what many of us moved to Dallas to escape: the dead end of Rust Belt America, somewhere in New Jersey. It’s also simpler-looking than it really is. It’s just a series of duets played out next to a nowhere freeway. But along the way, Darja loses a young husband, loses a couple of minimum-wage jobs and gets stuck sharing an apartment with a well-meaning, loser-schmoe, a wannabe-stud postman.
Martyna Majok’s play (it’s pronounced my-OAK) has gotten spot-on direction from Tina Parker and some superb performances, especially from Karen Parrish as Darja, but also Seth Magill as her young, musician-husband and Max Hartman as Tommy, the loser postman. Hartman brings all the exasperated, waddling schmoe-ness he can to the part — it’s his best work since the Undermain’s ‘Penelope.’ When Tommy gets a cheap, teddy-bear bouquet of flowers to give to Darja, just his shoving it at her – part embarrassed apology, part proposal, part abject surrender – is touching and laughably pathetic.
‘Ironbound’ needs the laughs. Majok’s vision of post-housing-collapse, immigrant America is like one of Bruce Springsteen’s darkest blue-collar ballads – if Springsteen ever sang with a bone-dry Polish accent and with the kind of sarcasm that hurts. The entire, 90-minute-long, intermissionless play takes place at night outside a shuttered factory. At one point, Darja even considers sleeping on the flat tire that’s been dumped there. Can’t get much more ‘end of the road’ than that.
So four actors, one set, no intermission. What’s so complicated? It’s Majok’s tricky time scheme. The play begins and ends with scenes set in 2014, when the now-twice-divorced Darja is reduced to a bundle of anger, cunning and need. She’s fed up with postman Tommy, fed up with her life, desperate and yearning to find her runaway, teenage son. When Tommy tries to get her to come back, he apologizes. Cheating on her was a mistake, he admits. But just a mistake.
She’s checked his cellphone: “Fourteen times it’s not mistake. Fourteen times it’s career.”
There’s an icepick precision to Darja’s disillusionment you have to admire. Everything for her has become transactional. She doesn’t believe in promises or romantic gestures. So why are you here and what is it you want – really?
Karen Parrish delivers an absolutely committed, courageous performance as Darja – she basically never leaves the stage for 90 minutes. My one quibble is that, in the flashbacks that take us to 1992, we don’t see enough of the magnetic, flirtatious Darja, the young woman who must have charmed these men. Sure, she was always pragmatic, maybe she was always her own worst enemy in relationships. But Darja couldn’t have been always this cynical and combative – given the male characters’ responses to her. A sense of a happier, marginally more open Darja would also give us a deeper sense for what she’s lost: not just lovers or jobs or dreams but a major part of herself.
In those flashbacks, we learn that her young immigrant husband Maks (Seth Magill) always wanted to be a blues musician in Chicago. I grew up with a grandmother who spoke Polish (and only Polish) to the end of her life, so I can say this: Both Parrish and Magill handle their accents with complete conviction. All praise and kudos to Anne Schilling, probably our finest voice coach. But in his bearing, Magill also conveys that resilience, that New-World hope and Old-World toughness one often sees in immigrants who haven’t found our streets exactly paved with gold: OK, factory job’s gone. I’ve still got harmonica and chops. This is America, right? We move on.
Into this mix, Vic, an American high schooler, floats up as something of an oddity. Vic (Doak Rapp) exists entirely for a single scene. It’s a welcome scene considering the different perspective, the different humor it brings. He’s a hip-hop white boy who stumbles across Darja late at night because he’s out, getting picked up by men who’ll pay. He comes across all gangsta, but he’s isn’t really.
Vic’s character is the only one who feels borrowed. Rapp brings a goofy, likable openness to him, but one gets the sense Majok needed a well-off American who’s easy with his privileges and pop culture. She needed him mostly for the comic contrast with her hardscrabble, outsider couple (and as something of a stand-in for Darja’s lost son). The playwright invented Vic’s rent boy angle as the only likely explanation such a teenager would be hanging out at a bus stop at night, let alone this bus stop.
Speaking of that bus stop, designer Clare Floyd Devries’ recent set for Echo Theater’s memorable ‘Ruined’ was one of that show’s few weaknesses. I commented that her Congolese bar somewhere in a war-torn jungle looked oddly new and shiny. I can’t help but think that with ‘Ironbound,’ she responded by deliberately fashioning this set, one of the more credible, crapped-out wastelands on any North Texas stage. Almost by instinct, it seems, Dallas-area theaters rarely convey squalor – perhaps out of the reasonable suspicion that Dallas audiences are here for the hope, not for stained reality or the bankrupt past.
But with the simple, ugly ‘Ironbound’ set, there are enough ground-out cigarette butts and faded ads to suggest Devries did some serious research. She seems to have made a detailed, Google photo study of New Jersey, Bus Stops, sub-category: Seriously Derelict. There’s no ‘ruin porn’ here, nothing rustic or retro industrial, just the tossed-aside and the used-up.
Bravo. She matches Darja’s character and Majok’s bleak but funny play, grit for grit.
UPDATE: Martyna Majok’s 2017 play, ‘Cost of Living,’ about disabled people and their caregivers, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.