In a cramped Bronx apartment, the chance encounter between Donatello Angelo Bucci (a/k/a Donnie) and Svetlana Orlova, whose name translates from Ukrainian to “Holy Eagle,” peels away many layers but it really is the quest for self-love that pops in the epiphany of the outstanding two-hander play Dreamers by Ariana Broumas Farber.
Directed by Stephanie Stroud, the site-specific production, a collaboration between Immigrant’s Daughter Theatre and the Wasatch Theatre Company, is the final show being presented in the tiny The Box Too Theatre at The Gateway (130 South 400 West), which unfortunately will not have its lease renewed. Incidentally, playwright Morag Shepherd is producer and artistic director of Immigrant’s Daughter Theatre.
The two actors – Sophia Van Nederveen as Svetlana and Tyler Kline as Donnie – extrude all of the dynamite truths in Farber’s no-holds-barred script. Rounding out the production as stage manager is Emily Kitterer.
This is intimate chamber theater par excellence. The set is Svetlana’s apartment with a sofa that doubles as a bed, a few pieces of furniture, Eastern Orthodox icons, and a stack of books, including, most notably, a guide to prepare for the American citizenship test. An audience of slightly more than a dozen sits in chairs which form a semicircle around the performing space. Everything happens within a distance of barely more than six feet.
Donnie, who has had a crush on Svetlana from afar, finally works up the courage to meet her. At 24, the Italian New Yorker is unable to rein in his braggadocio. He definitely has no filter when he speaks but also for someone who lives in the city that has always been a prime destination to live out one’s dreams, his life is quite sheltered. He is normally not a risk-taker but he breaks the habit by finally meeting Svetlana face-to-face. Farber’s script carries plenty of ironic bite. Donnie’s braggadocio barely covers his own insecurities. For example, he has worked dead-end jobs and was kicked out of a basement apartment after his grandmother died.
Donnie is surprised to learn that Svetlana (or Sveta, which is her nickname of endearment) is much older than he thought she might be. She is 39, trained as a chemical engineer in her native Ukraine but in the U.S. she works in a laundromat. With war having just broken out in her homeland, she is desperate to return and move her elderly, ailing mother to safety. She had hoped to bring her to the U.S., but the wait has been too long and Svetlana has lost her patience with a system that does not appear to acknowledge the urgency of the matter.
In the early scenes, the play’s tone is like a pungent, spiced up rom-com. Svetlana worries about the language barrier and she is initially inhibited and reserved but she eventually warms to Donnie. Of course, Donnie cannot stop talking. He speaks impulsively and his swaggering veneer charms her, despite a mismatch that is predestined in its awkwardness. Kline inhabits the role of Donnie with solid credibility. He has the accent down pat, shows off his amateur rap skills, hits the rhythm of the slang and vernacular of his neighborhood and takes pride in his life philosophy of gym, tan and laundry. Likewise, Van Nederveen has her accent down pat, speaking in the credible cadence of someone who is unfamiliar with the slang she is hearing from her apartment guest. She also knows how to play to Donnie’s demeanor, even as it becomes apparent just how far out he is from ever being in her league.
To his credit, Donnie admits that he knows that he talks way too much before he thinks about what he really should be saying properly. “Don’t mind me — I’m a fuckin’ ignoramus. I mean I flunked straight outta geography in high school. I’m sayin’ that’s why I fix cars for a living, you know?”
But, Svetlana also is attracted just enough by his swagger and braggadocio that she decides to let Donnie stay longer and to see if perhaps he has the real solution to her urgent needs. She tacitly acknowledges when Donnie says, “I ain’t a wise guy or nothing like that…but let’s just say my family is… connected.” There are many moments of irony and foreshadowing in lines like these that drive the play toward its proper conclusion.
The bits of music which pop up in the play are more than incidental cues for mood. They are signals boosting the underlying currents defining both characters. Donnie tries to impress Svetlana, with his take on Big Subwoofer by Mount Westmore, a 2021 release that is a great example of the old school funk west coast jam. It is a surprising but edifying bit. One would think this proud native New Yorker would instead be trying to woo his host by tipping his cap to one of the music giants from his neighborhood, as the east coast was the birthplace of hip hop. Meanwhile, Svetlana is unimpressed by his hip hop tastes. She tells Donnie that Mariah Carey is more her style, as she remembers hearing American pop music when the Berlin Wall fell, heralding the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Later, Donnie seems to have more success in connecting with Svetlana with I Like You (A Happier Song), which features Post Malone and Doja Cat. It is a love song but it also functions well for this play because of the counterpoint of its meaning. Donnie likely would do anything to keep Svetlana as a romantic companion. But, Svetlana also is wondering if Donnie, indeed, has the means to live up to the letter of his bragging and promises. Svetlana is desperate and she knows that previously she has not been able to count on the men who have been in her life, either directly or indirectly.
Within a few moments, the play darkens, leaving behind the hopeful charms of the rom-com that appeared to be in the making. Donnie is oblivious about his impulsiveness, a result of his own arrested development and his lack of intellectual curiosity. Svetlana realizes that he understands even less about his own country than his wild, harsh misperceptions about her native land. As Svetlana shares more details about her life, the revelations shock Donnie. But, she also realizes that Donnie’s aura is a weak cover for a partially formed man who has yet to discover what it would mean to believe in himself.
The point comes home at the end of the play, when the remix of Big Energy by Latto and Mariah Carey is heard, an arrangement that subverts what it means to have “big dick energy.”
This is a marvelous play and production. Farber worked quickly and effectively to capitalize on the immediacy of the news of the war and the waves of Ukrainian refugees that spread across the globe, with many also ending up in the U.S. But, Dreamers also reminds us of how western countries such as the U.S., Canada and Germany have let down refugees who have similar concerns and predicaments like Svetlana. At one point, she is curious about what Donnie likes about Trump and, of course, his answer is couched in the painfully familiar rhetoric of baseless bragging that actually masks the insecurities which afflict him and other men like the former president. Meanwhile, Ukrainian refugees have struggled in the U.S., primarily because the former president had practically obliterated the resettlement program for refugees, in order to stoke the base of racism and xenophobia among his supporters.
Donnie is a conflicted boy. He keeps up appearances to maintain his street cred with his Bronx buddies and survive in the neighborhood. He has been frightened by the prospect of learning things that would compel him to revamp his worldview and finally pursue the dreams he has kept bottled up inside because he has never mustered self-confidence. Svetlana hoped that Donnie could have been the ideal American she dreamed of meeting in New York City. He would have been a refreshing change from so many others she has encountered, who are unable to fully recognize the humanity of refugees like her or the importance of not just being welcomed in the States but also the belief of investing in her skills so that one day, hopefully sooner than later, she could bring her mother here.
The play continues through Dec. 10. Seating is limited to 14 per performance. For tickets and more information, see The Box website.