nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 12, 2007
My ancestors emigrated to the United States from Europe between 1863 and 1900; their experiences of leaving behind whatever it was they were escaping in their homelands and navigating/adapting/assimilating in their newly chosen country are remote and, as family members disperse and die, irretrievably lost. For so many of my generation, what it means to be an immigrant—perhaps the single most common thread among the citizens of this Melting Pot in which we live—is something we'll never fully fathom.
Which is why a play like Saviana Stanescu's Waxing West is so important. Stanescu has gone through something like what my great-grandparents went through, only it happened to her within the past few years: she lived through the Ceaucescu regime in Romania and its chaotic aftermath, then came to the New York in early September 2001. In Waxing West, she tells her own and many of her compadres' stories, tracing a couple of years in the life of the fictional Daniela, a young woman who journeys from Romania to America seeking marriage and comfort and stability and finding, well, pretty much the opposite.
Daniela's tale is fascinating in its own right: she's over 30 when her mother, Marcela, hatches a plan to marry her off to the son of a wealthy New York matron who loves Romanian culture and Romanian people. Charlie, the son in question, is willing to go through with this match to please his mother even though his heart is not in it. Stanescu cannily never gives us a single reason why Daniela agrees to the scheme; instead she feeds us enough information about what Daniela's life in Romania is like so that we fully comprehend a desire to leave it behind forever.
Unfortunately, shortly after Daniela arrives in New York, Charlie's mother dies suddenly: the expected wedding is replaced by a funeral, and then by months of limbo as Charlie appropriates Daniela as maid/cook (the very last thing she wanted to be; Daniela is a cosmetologist by profession) without ever setting a date for their marriage. Charlie's sister Gloria makes occasional appearances in Daniela's life as well, and tries to seduce her into a sexual relationship. Here again, Stanescu is careful not to give away too much, leaving motivations and effects for us to decide for ourselves. A kind of rapprochement seems to be in the offing for Daniela and Charlie...and then suddenly 9/11 happens, and Daniela's life is once again thrown akimbo by events beyond her control.
The untethering discombobulation of trying to create an entirely new life after having lived one for many years is at the compelling center of Stanescu's play; so, too, is the near-impossibility of actually achieving understanding (let alone true synchronicity) when alien cultures collide and coexist. Daniela's one friend in America, a Yugoslav immigrant named Uros who longs to visit Iraq because he wants to retrace the path of the legendary hero Gilgamesh, offers a contrasting yet similar example of the fundamental difficulties of relocation.
Benjamin Mosse has staged Waxing West commendably, with a spare but very effective design and extremely sharp casting. Mosse keeps his actors on stage throughout the play, seated on chairs observing the action when they're not directly involved in it. For once, this device proves valuable rather than distracting, helping to reinforce the ties back home that constantly tug on Daniela as she tries to make her way in America—and, similarly, the temptations that pull her away from Romania in the first place. Among the former, by the way, are the ghosts of dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu and his wife Elena, who continue to haunt Daniela's nightmares even after she arrives in New York.
The ensemble is excellent, with particularly memorable work coming from Grant Neale as Ceaucescu, Marnye Young as Daniela, and Dan Shaked and Kathryn Kates as her brother and mother. Stanescu's writing is remarkable, shifting non-linearly back and forth through the parts of Daniela's story in a way that resembles the random patterns of memory, and constantly rooted in a laughter-through-tears absurdism that reminds us that Ionesco was also a Romanian emigre. (Note: Stanescu's play Aurolac Blues is published in NYTE's anthology Plays and Playwrights 2006).