‘Ironbound,’ currently getting its area premiere from Kitchen Dog Theatre, is not sleek or clever, splashy or cool. In that sense, it’s not really a Dallas kind of play, Dallas loves only winners. ‘Ironbound’ is much like its main character: a bordering-on-middle-aged Polish immigrant in New Jersey, a battered survivor with a no-nonsense sense of humor. It’s all she has now: biting honesty. I came here after Iron Curtain fell, she declares. Got here just as American Dream fell in.
So ‘Ironbound’ is one tough, bleak but funny drama. It’s also simpler-looking than it is. Darja loses a young husband, loses a warehouse full of jobs and gets stuck sharing an apartment with a well-meaning, confused, 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-schmoe 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 brings a cheap, teddy-bear bouquet of flowers to Darja, just his shoving it at her — part apology, part proposal, part abject surrender — it’s tearfully comic and laughably pathetic.
True, ‘Ironbound’ needs the laughs. Majok’s vision of barely-working, post-housing-collapse, immigrant America is like one of Bruce Springsteen’s darkest blue-collar ballads – if Springsteen ever sang with a sarcastic, bone-dry Polish accent. At one point during this play, Darja considers sleeping on the car tire that’s been dumped near the bus stop. The stop is where the entire, 90-minute-long, intermissionless play takes place, a bus stop outside the now-shuttered factory where Darja and her young husband Maks used to work.
So four actors, one set, no intermission – what’s complicated here? It’s Majok’s tricky time scheme. The play begins and ends with scenes set in 2014, when the now-twice-divorced Darja has had it — she’s fed up with Tommy, fed up with her life, desperate and yearning to find her runaway son, who’s a drug addict and thief. Darja has become a bundle of anger, cunning and need. When postman Tommy tries to get her to come back, he apologizes or, actually, just shrugs off the infidelity that’s triggered her flight from their apartment. Cheating on her was a mistake, he admits, but just a mistake. She’s checked his cellphone, though: “Fourteen times it’s not mistake,” she says. “Fourteen times it’s career.”
There’s an icepick precision to her disillusionment you have to admire. Everything for Darja becomes transactional. She doesn’t believe in promises or romantic gestures. When Tommy suggests they try living together, she promptly wants to know what’s in it for him. Does she have to lie there? If she lies there with him, does she have to make noises?
Karen Parrish delivers a 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 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’ response to her. Ultimately, a sense of a younger, marginally more open Darja will also give us a feel for what she’s lost. Not just lovers or jobs or dreams, but a part of herself.
In those flashbacks, we learn that she and Maks emigrated just when all of America’s low-tech jobs that still paid a living wage vanished. Maks doesn’t care so much, he’s always wanted to be a blues musician, and he tries to convince Darja to come with him to Chicago. I grew up with a grandmother who spoke Polish (and only Polish) to the end of her life, so I can say this: As Maks, Magill (like Parrish) not only handles the Polish accent with conviction but his bearing has that resilience, hope and Old World-wariness one often sees in immigrants who didn’t find our streets exactly paved with gold. Kudos to dialect coach Anne Schilling.
All of which leaves us with the young Vic (Doak Rapp) as something of the odd man out. Vic exists for a single scene – a welcome one considering the humor it brings. He’s a hip-hop white boy who stumbles across Darja at the late-night bus stop because he’s out there, getting picked up by men who’ll pay. He comes across all gangsta until we quickly discover he’s actually a rich kid who just hates his home. Vic’s character is the only one who feels a little borrowed. Rapp brings a goofy, likable openness to him, but one gets the sense Majok needed someone well-off and easy for the contrast. She came up with the rent boy angle as the only likely explanation such a teenager would be at this bus stop at night.
Speaking of that bus stop: I criticized designer Clare Floyd Devries’ set for Echo Theater’s memorable ‘Ruined’ as one of that show’s few weaknesses. Her Congolese bar in the war-torn jungle was ramshackle yet still looked new and shiny. I can’t help but think that with ‘Ironbound,’ she responded to that comment by creating one of the more credible wastelands on any Dallas-area stage. For years, Dallas-area theaters have rarely captured squalor or just ordinary disrepair in a credible fashion. Here, there are enough ground-out cigarette butts and half-scraped-away posters to suggest Devries made a photographic study of New Jersey, Bus Stops, sub-category: Abandoned. Well done. She matches the play, grit for grit.