'Cost of Living' review — a beautifully acted drama about connection and class
Martyna Majok’s Cost of Living follows shifting relationships between two disabled adults and their caregivers. The play arrives on Broadway four years after being awarded a Pulitzer Prize, an honor that is both a badge (bragging rights to an exclusive club) and baggage (escalated expectations). That’s the cost of winning.
Over 110 unbroken minutes this lean, perceptive, and beautifully acted drama explores several provocative themes including connection and isolation as well as privilege and class. The main focus is people in need — and not just the two individuals who use wheelchairs, but the able-bodied attendants as well. All four face challenges and hurdles of every stripe. That’s the point — that’s the cost of living.
The action unspools over nine scenes, and Wilson Chin’s spare, revolving set provides a smooth and seamless showcase in this Manhattan Theatre Club production. The play starts in a bar a week before Christmas. “That’s gonna be hard,” Eddie (David Zayas), an out-of-work long-haul truck driver, tells an unseen character in a lengthy — a bit too windy, actually — monologue. Holiday cheer isn’t in Eddie’s wheelhouse. He’s alone, suffering, untethered.
The plot rewinds to September and the sleek New Jersey apartment where John (Gregg Mozgala), a Princeton grad student, lives. He’s got a Harvard degree and wealth. He wraps himself up in the comfort they afford just like he does in his plush cashmere sweaters. John has cerebral palsy and requires help for daily hygiene tasks.
Jess (Kara Young), meets with John to apply to be his caretaker. She’s working-class with a sick immigrant mother and a Princeton degree that’s led nowhere careerwise for her. She slings drinks in bars. John says her job would be “to wash me. My hair. Teeth… You’d keep me handsome.” She gets the gig. She’s desperate for money for reasons that emerge.
The story transitions to the rundown home of Ani (Katy Sullivan), Eddie’s estranged wife. A catastrophic accident shattered her spinal cord and left her a quadriplegic above-the-knee amputee. She’s bitter, and rightly so, with a salty tongue and no time for self-pity. Despite having a girlfriend, Eddie insists on caring for Ani. He’s motivated by financial and emotional reasons.
As the months move forward, each pair grows closer. In back-to-back scenes, Jess washes John as he strips, and she helps him into his shower. It’s an intimate arrangement, but it plays out with a sense of equal mutual respect — or so it seems. At Ani’s place, Eddie bathes his ex. He talks about playing the piano as a kid. “Twenty-almost-one years,” she says. “You never told me that.” In a moment of acute tenderness that reveals Majok’s sensitive and creative mind, Eddie plays Ani’s arm like a keyboard. Moments later, things take a harrowing turn that jolts them — and the audience — back to reality.
It’s easy to root for these couples — not necessarily in a romantic sense but simply in terms of human connection. Guided by director Jo Bonney, the actors don’t strike a false note — even when the script gets spotty. Although the fate of Eddie and Ani’s relationship is all too believable, that’s less the case for John and Jess. While John’s lack of generosity is obvious, Jess getting sucker-punched by misreading her boss undercuts her character’s keen intelligence.
How the couples’ story strands finally twine together requires a leap of faith. In the end, convenient plot turns can’t undo the play’s bracing originality. Majok wisely doesn’t sugarcoat realities in sentimentality, but she also leaves the door ajar for an optimistic glimmer. That feels right. After all, what’s the cost of hope?
Photo credit: David Zayas and Katy Sullivan in Cost of Living. (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)
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