Aliens With Extraordinary Skills
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 6, 2011
Full disclosure: I've been a fan of playwright Saviana Stanescu for just about as long as I've known her (nine years). Four of her plays are published on NYTE's website Indie Theater Now, and I moderated a talkback with Saviana, director Joan Kane, and the cast of this production of Aliens with Extraordinary Skills.
So I can't exactly be called an unbiased observer; but I wouldn't have wanted to champion Saviana's play in the ways I have done if I didn't think it were deserving. It is; on second viewing (the first time was the premiere at Women's Project, a couple of years ago), my admiration for this piece has grown. Aliens with Extraordinary Skills is wise, insightful, delightfully theatrical, and—in 2011, with immigration one of the central issues of the day—enormously relevant.
The play tracks the first months in America of a pair of immigrants. Nadia is from Moldova, the daughter of a pair of professional clowns. Her parents have both died, and she has journeyed to a new land, her suitcase filled with balloon animals, eager to make a living by making people laugh. Borat is from Russia, where his mother is very ill; he is hoping to earn enough money as a taxi driver to help her get well.
The two are here on trumped-up visas sold to them by a Ukrainian: they are supposedly circus artists, allowed to work in the U.S. because they are, as the title says, "aliens with extraordinary skills." But the visas are fake and Homeland Security/INS are on their tails, or at least looming large in their anxieties. They change their names—Nadia becomes "Ginger" and Borat becomes, unconvincingly, "Steve from Tennessee." They travel separately to New York City and here their adventures truly begin.
I don't want to give away too much more of what happens, because you need to see this play for yourself. Nadia finds a room in the Washington Heights apartment of Dominican immigrant Lupita, and also a constant companion in Bob, the guy Lupita was supposed to sell her sofa to. Borat sleeps with a fleet of other illegal cab-drivers in the home of their Albanian employer. Both find love and both face down the very real fear of exposure and deportation. Saviana's writing is genuine, taut, and human, and we come to care about all four of these people who are each trying to carve out a simple life for themselves, against the odds, in the chaotic mass of New York City.
Director Joan Kane realizes the work with heart and simplicity, using a spare but very effective set by Starlet Jacobs, with character-defining costumes by Erica Evans and evocative lighting and sound by Bruce A! Kraemer and Ian Wehrle, respectively. The six-member cast is exemplary: Gabrielle Young and Richard Zekaria are so convincing as Nadia and Borat that I was surprised, when I met them at the talkback, to hear their own real unaccented American voices. Abby Rockwell Savage is terrific as the hardened but good-hearted Lupita, and her chemistry with Young is excellent. Douglas Rossi gives us a likeable quirky good guy in the role of Bob. And Viet Vo and Debby Brand are both funny and a little bit scary as the (phantom?) Homeland Security officers who haunt Nadia's waking dreams and real life.
At the talkback, Saviana expanded on how many of the details in her play are authentic. (She came to the U.S. in 2001 on a real "alien with extraordinary skills" visa, and her own experiences as well as encounters with other immigrants less fortunate than herself inform this play enormously.) Aliens reminds us that all of us, somewhere in our family tree, have immigrants who faced the obstacles of making America their home, and in fact—as Joan Kane noted during our discussion—it is the diversity enabled by the American Melting Pot that made the country great in the first place. Fear of immigrants is nothing new in the U.S., but the perspective that an alien with extraordinary skills such as Saviana Stanescu can bring to the theatre audience in a potent work like this is invaluable.