‘Cost of Living’ Broadway Review: Are Lives Lived Well or Wasted?
What price do we place on our own inherent value? What is the rock bottom cost we have to pay to live with dignity and be fulfilled emotionally, physically, materially? These subtle questions as well as questions about our need for respect and life-giving emotional and spiritual connection compose the themes of Martyna Majok’s well-acted four-hander, Cost of Living directed by Jo Bonney currently, at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
The 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winning play originally debuted at the Williamstown Theater Festival in 2016, and appeared off Broadway in Manhattan Theatre Club’s production at New York City Center in 2017. Currently, Manhattan Theatre Club presents Majok’s Broadway debut, adapting to the larger stage and stretching out the precisely appropriate scenic design of the various New Jersey apartments of differing economic scale by Wilson Chin. From the ensemble Gregg Mozgala and Katy Sullivan originated their roles of the differently abled John and Ani. Kara Young as Jess and David Zayas as Eddie portray the able bodied caretakers who learn what physical and emotional skills are required to help the differently abled deal with the most intimate and personal body functions when they cannot.
The actors make a terrific ensemble despite a play that has flawed construction and sometimes is unnecessarily confusing during the first hour of the two hour play which speeds by in some parts and slow walks in others. But for the exceptional performances one wouldn’t completely understand the import of the present immediate timeline of the first scene as it connects to the last scene. Both provide the frame that holds together the substance of the rest of the events which take place in flashback four months prior.
Thanks to the superb David Zayas who portrays Eddie, an out of work truck driver and former alcoholic who is clear-eyed and specific in his discussion of his wife who has passed, we eventually unravel the mystery of events which take place between Eddie and wife Ani (Katy Sullivan), Jess (Kara Young) and John (Greg Mozgala) that unspool in the past and spin into the present changing the direction of circumstances for Eddie and Jess.
If Majok didn’t order the play as a frame with flashbacks, the relationships of the couples would have popped even more than they do. However, it is a way to hide the contrivances that promote surprise and twists in Majok’s exploration of the relationships between Jess and John, Ani and Eddie. These twists set up the concluding scene which effects the most beautiful and resonating of Marjok’s themes of connection and communication. The last scene is the uplifting high-point of the play, carefully shepherded by Bonny and wonderfully acted by Zayas and Young.
The structural difficulty occurs in the initial scene with Eddie’s solo speech to an unidentified individual (the audience) in the setting of a bar with a lovely row of shining alcohol bottles decoratively strung with Christmas lights. Eddie tells us the hipster bar is in chic Williamsburg, Brooklyn where he has been enticed from Bayonne, New Jersey by cheeky texts. The anonymous individual was given his deceased wife’s phone number which Eddie used to text her to not feel so desolate and alone. After being pestered by the texter into curiosity and a desire to stave off loneliness, Eddie decides to accept the offer to meet at the Williamsburg bar on the snowy night in December.
Zayas’s Eddie, in this sprawling introductory opening scene, where he relays some of his backstory about his alcoholism and split with his wife, remains charming, funny and generous. He easily wins us over by offering us (the anonymous guy in the bar) a drink for listening to him as he promises not to launch into the doom and gloom he feels since his wife died. We go along for the pleasant ride, not realizing when he leaves that this is a prologue, one section of the frame in the immediate present. Thus when the scene switches completely to another setting (thanks to Wilson Chin’s upscale scenic design representing John’s apartment) we don’t realize we are in a flashback four months earlier in another situation. We discover it when the director and the playwright unfold the dialogue introducing two characters unrelated to Eddie.
This might easily have been clarified with a notation in the program of setting change. Prosaic and uncool? Hardly. For the purpose of clarification and the heightening of the vital themes and arc of the relationships which the playwright presents and explores, the details would have launched us into the profound characterizations earlier to appreciate the depth of the play. Thus, we must catch ourselves up in the time switch to a flashback that this is John’s apartment in Princeton at a time in September.
Jess (Kara Young) and John (Greg Mozgala) are complex individuals coming from completely different socioeconomic backgrounds and physical and emotional states, key points for what later unfolds. By degrees we learn that Jess and John went to Princeton where John’s stylish apartment is located. John is a wealthy grad student with cerebral palsy (Mozgala has cerebral palsy). Jess graduated with honors and now works in bars where her tips are large. However, she needs the caretaker job John offers for additional money. As both do the interview dance, we are struck by Jess’ unadorned personality and direct authenticity. John must win us over as he comes off as a presumptuous ironist who is taken with himself.
Whether his personality is a pose to cover for extreme inferiority in a culture and society that prizes the beautiful, athletic, young and whole, or his wealth has allowed him to leverage his superior act, we realize that both Jess and John act in control. Like any relationship, even a work one, trust must be gained and built up. Jess is guarded and wary; John is overly confident and wry.
In the next scene switch from John’s apartment in Princeton, we meet Eddie’s wife Ani who is alive at this point in the flashback which she states takes place in September. She is in her new apartment where she will live with outside help. She is a quadriplegic, having suffered a horrific car accident in the previous months where surgeries saved her life but couldn’t restore her use of her arms and both legs which were amputated at the knee. Obviously, Ani is infuriated with Eddie and curses him out as a matter of course, trying to get him to leave. He is moved by her condition and feels guilty and responsible for being with another woman, a cause of their separation and filing papers for divorce. However, because they are still legally together, she is on his insurance. And he kindly suggests she stay on it even after they are divorced.
The play by degrees establishes the warmth of feeling between Ani and Eddie, Jess and John as the caretakers help the differently abled shower, bathe and finish their personal toilet. The intimacy of the activities are matched by the honesty of their conversations so we are struck by the humanity and concern shared by each individual in the couple who helps the other in an exchange. Anit gives Eddie emotional support as he helps her physically. Jess receives a listening ear in John as she becomes adept at transferring him to the shower seat and helps him cleanse himself.
We learn more about Jess’ immigrant background, her mother’s returning home because of financial difficulty and her struggle to send money home to her, during John’s and Jess’ time together. With the once married couple, the former love between Eddie and Ani is still evident but it has changed and deepened. Eddie could just move away from Ani. However, he emotionally needs to be with her and is happy that he can help her and watch her when the agency and nurse call on him because her regular caretakers sometimes cancel.
The dynamic relationships created by the superlative actors make this play ring out with hope, even though in the last two flashbacks, the darkness comes and we fear for the characters we have come to like. Also, selfishness is revealed in one of the characters whose clever manipulations are completely unexpected and underestimated. It is a shocking and hurtful reveal and the character never recovers our good will because he has made himself unworthy of it. This twist is seamlessly drawn as Majok plucks at our heart strings and upends our expectations. However, the last scene between Zayas’ Eddie and Young’s Kar is perfection in dialogue, acting, direction. In the actors’ living each moment, we realize why there is nothing like theater.
Cost of Living reminds us of our weaknesses and the consolation that if one feels lonely, all experience the ache even those partnered up. It is a fact of life that neither money nor marriage can salve; it is the cost of being alive, for we are each in ourselves individual and alone. However, only communication, truth and honesty with others can light the way for connection that is sincere and life affirming. It is then that the cost of being alive is worthwhile.
Kudos to Jessica Pabst (costume design) Jeff Croiter (lighting design) Rob Kaplowitz (sound design) Mikaal Sulaiman (original music) and Thomas Schall (movement consultant).
For tickets and times go to their website: https://www.manhattantheatreclub.com/shows/2022-23-season/cost-of-living/
NYTW’S ‘Sanctuary City’ at the Lucille Lortel Theatre
One of the most fascinating elements of the superb Martyna Majok’s Sanctuary City, directed by Rebecca Frecknall, is the symbolic stylization conveyed by the script. Majok’s script is a powerhouse. It is rhythmic, poetic and a rap of eternal, brief moments of brilliance in time. Majok’s layered work elucidates how relationships begin, not with long conversational pieces, but with connecting, truncated slips of thought. She suggests that relationships evolve through the power of memory and imagination, the interactions between “B” (the adorable and heartfelt Jasal Chase-Owens), and the emotionally wired “G” (the wonderful Sharlene Cruz,). These prove to be fatal, fairy wisps in the first part of the production.
Frecknall’s staging on a bare, raised platform, sans props and any theatrical spectacle, requires that the audience focus on Majok’s words which, abstracted, are short, repetitive bursts. For emphasis and effect, Frecknall follows the brief, seven word or less sentences with brilliant strobe light flashes, denoting flashbacks and changes of scene, situation and time. The intriguing lighting and set design are by Tom Scutt and Isabella Byrd with Mikaal Sulaiman’s sound design.
The effect, revealing the stress and anxiety of the characters, recalls the dislocation and alienation that characters experience in plays like Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Such stylized dialogue brings to mind the mission of Theatre of the Absurdists, who highlighted the incapacity of language to convey emotion and heart. When human beings experience trauma, internal isolation and nihilism to a devastating extent, verbalization seems impossible.
Thus, as teenagers “B” and “G” move and re-position themselves onstage. As the portray these characters Chase-Owens and Cruz, offer fragments of memory recalling the past with intensity. Engaged, we follow intently, discovering that they are illegal aliens. “B’s” mom is fed up and intends to return to a country that her son was too young to know. “G’s” mom is oppressed and abused by the partner she lives with who also wallops “G” for good measure when she gets in the way. “G” and “B,” who are archetypes of dreamers everywhere, have parents who are single women. Hampered by fear of reprisal and intimidated by threats of deportation, the mothers are unable to make comfortable lives for their children. They struggle to do their best, but instead “B” and “G” are brought into a cold, indecent, alien world of devastation without citizenship.
We watch in the dim light and lightning-like flashes how Cruz’s “G” often climbs up the fire escape seeking “sanctuary” and help from Chase-Owens “B.” The abuse, arguments and chaos at her apartment create phenomenal stress; she must leave. “B” welcomes her and eventually she sleeps in his bed and they have sex to make a connection so they feel less alone. Both confide in each other, encourage each other at school and “dream” of better times which eventually do happen for “G.” The superb actors create a relationship dynamic that is believable and vital. Interested and invested in their prodigiously skilled portrayals, we stay with them throughout the play.
The setting is New Jersey in 2006, in a country which ill uses its immigrants because political parties have exploited the issue of citizenship as a way to consolidate power. For “B” who fears getting caught and being deported, the emotional terrors are like a war of attrition that force him and his mother to live an impoverished pressure-cooker existence. They wait daily for the explosion to occur, of their being caught and deported.
We discover through the light flashes and their circular movements on the platform, that “B” and “G” trace the chronology of their relationship in staccato bursts of memory. These lead to an apotheosis at the play’s conclusion. We empathize with “B’s” concern for his mother, who suffers abuse and bullying from her employer. She obeys his every word, and overlooks his skimping her pay. His disrespect is better than returning to the homeland, until she reaches a point of no return and decides it is enough.
Thus, Majok reminds us continually by examining the plight of “G’s” and “B’s” situation, that immigrant women are often sexually abused and beaten because they have no leverage. As in the case of “G’s” mother, orders of protection are useless because the partner can call INS (currently ICE), and have them deported, if they don’t comply sexually. Indeed, once the partner exhausts the mother, the implication is that he will come for “G.” At times “G” shows up at “B’s” bleeding and bruised by his wanton brutality.
However, hope does come. And in the same stylized format of language, “G” tells “B” that her mother got her papers and miraculously, “G” is a citizen. That moment of G’s” joy causes “B’s” searing pain. While “G” no longer fears discovery and looks forward to their moving away from her mom’s monstrous partner, we note “B’s” sadness and envy. He is stuck. His mother is going back to the “homeland” and his confidante and ersatz lover has “made it” to a more superior position in the immigrant pecking order, while he must wallow in her wake, facing the shadows of fear and oppression alone.
It is at this juncture that a turning point occurs. The guilt “G” feels about her position in comparison to “B’s” situation wears on her. She forms the idea that as he has given her sanctuary, perhaps she can do the same for him. Her method is to select the way to citizenship immigrants have employed for decades. After all, she has feelings for him and is willing to risk her life offering to marry him, though, if discovered, she possibly would lose her own citizenship, be fined and jailed after he is deported.
Majok’s script sags when the plans evolve for “G” to help “B.” Perhaps due to the continued flashes of light and whirl-y-gig staging, the sameness becomes tedious. However, there is the wonderful and welcome respite of their dancing and going to the prom with additional colorful lighting. The diversion from the stasis of the repetitive stagnant (the symbolism is apparent…no need to bludgeon the audience), might have come sooner.
And then comes the transformation of a three-year hiatus which Frecknall announces with sound effects and darkness both of which are symbolically ominous. Subsequently, Henry (the excellent Austin Smith) comes onto the threshold of “B’s” life to provide safety and emotional sustenance as “G” once had, until she returns, and the three clash. In this second sequence of events, all is light with no obfuscation. “B” and “G” no longer maneuver around each other. Their dynamic is straightforward. Now, it is “G” who must sink or swim in her emotional guilt while “B” makes a decision about citizenship and sacrificing love.
What happened to “G” and “B’s” compact, their relationship, their closeness? Majok presents the stark themes. Immigrants and illegal aliens are compelled by political forces to behave in ways counter to their altruistic good will and sense of decency. Of course, this doesn’t just pertain to those trying for citizenship. It doubly applies to citizens who have become mentally and emotionally inert and are inured to the sensitivities of others because they are weighted down by materialism and consumerism. In other words, they having forgotten “where they came from.” Ironically, the country then, no longer becomes a sanctuary, but a prison that has sucked their life force dry.
These themes are only a few of those that Majok covers in this play of antitheses: of connection and isolation, of compromise and extremism, of fear and hope, of dislocation and community, of alienation and unity.
Through various administrations, we’ve closed our borders following the need of politicians to use immigration and immigrants as playthings to boogeymen citizens and grow their political power base. Sanctuary City shines a unique light on the PTSD that arises for those who want a better life and are willing to risk their substance to dream big and/or help others who are lost in limbo between citizenship and deportation; those who wait for the light of deliverance. Majok’s writing is poetic and austere with the rhythms of immigrants’ and aliens’ voices and silences.
Kudos to the technical team that melded the elements lighting, sound, stage design, etc., to reflect the themes and sync them with the beautiful movement, and symbolism staged and directed by Frecknall. Her acute talents exceptional and show insight, precision and intuition.. If you can get down to Lucille Lortel Theatre to see Sanctuary City before it closes this weekend. you will be happy you did. For tickets and times go to their website. https://www.nytw.org/show/sanctuary-city/