'Ironbound': Powerful drama about the American dream at Simpatico

There are places the American dream doesn’t reach. Lives it never quite touches.

That’s the blighted neverland we enter in Simpatico Theatre Project’s affecting — if uneven and problematic — production of Ironbound, now through April 2 at the Louis Bluver Theatre in Center City.

The tragicomedy by playwright Martyna Majok (Cost of Living, Petty Harbour) , named after the depressed Newark, N.J., neighborhood where it’s set, takes a cold, hard look at the life of a middle-aged Polish-born woman named Darja who has been unable to climb out of poverty more than two decades after immigrating to America.

Now 42, the two-time divorcée hasn’t had much luck with men, either. Or with motherhood: Her twentysomething son is a drug addict and thief.

Composed of five fragmented scenes that explore Darja’s major relationships over a 22-year period,  Ironbound had its world premiere last year in a critically lauded Off-Broadway production starring Tony-nominee Marin Ireland.

It is sad that Simpatico’s take doesn’t measure up despite an impressive lead performance by Julianna Zinkel (Act II Playhouse’s Mauritus; People’s Light's Pride and Prejudice).

An austere minimalist work, Ironbound is set for its entire 90 minutes at a bus stop – a metal pole and a bench. There is very little action and there are virtually no props.

Each scene consists of one-on-one conversations between Darja and a single costar. There are no distractions for either the actors or the audience.

This is where director Harriet Power (In a Dark House) and her actors run into trouble: The performers seem to be at a loss of what to do with their bodies. There’s a restlessness here that leads to exaggerated gestures, absentminded toe-tapping.

One wishes the actors engaged each other directly, physically. There’s just too little contact between Zinkel and her costars, which is odd, considering the emotional intensity of the scenes.

Ironbound opens in 2014. Darja is at the bus stop and carries on a protracted row with her live-in boyfriend, a letter carrier named Tommy (Simpatico’s producing artistic director Allen Radway). Mercurial by nature, Darja is enraged that Tommy has been sleeping with Laura, a wealthy woman whose home Darja cleans.

But is she all that angry? It turns out that Darja has been spying on her beau for six years, compiling evidence of his misdeeds to use against him.

She tells Tommy she’ll stay with him for the $3,000 she needs to replace the car her son had recently stolen.

What makes a woman this cold?

Ironbound tries to answer that question.

The second scene takes us to 1992. Newlyweds Darja and her first husband Maks (Mitchell Bloom, A Great War at Iron Age Theatre) flirt as they wait for their bus. This version of Darja is soft, loving. She has a good job at the factory across the street and hopes to start a family. But Maks wants to move to Chicago to pursue a music career. 

A later scene set in 2006 features a funny performance from Joseph Acquaye (a senior at University of the Arts) as Vic, a prep school student who helps Darja after she’s been beaten by her second husband. Vic hails from a wealthy family, yet works as a sometime male prostitute and pot dealer. It’s for the kicks, he tells an astonished Darja.

Ironbound isn’t an easy play. And Darja isn’t an entirely lovable heroine. Although the play's economic critique of postindustrial America tends to be simplistic, its portrayal of working-class despair is anything but shallow. This is a powerful tonic to the cheap jingoism that passes for political and social discourse on the media.

Ironbound, through April 2, presented by Simpatico Theatre Project at the Louis Bluver Theatre, 302 S. Hicks St. Tickets: $10-$30. Information: 267-437-7529 or www.simpaticotheatre.org

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