'Cost of Living' puts seldom represented stories on the Broadway stage
The show's cast talks about the importance of representation and the variety of perspectives in this play.
"Cost of Living is a great American play. It's one of the greatest plays within the last 10 years."
So said Gregg Mozgala, who starred in Martyna Majok's play off Broadway in 2018 and is now doing so again for its Broadway premiere. He's perhaps a little biased, but the show did win the Pulitzer Prize in 2018. And there's a reason Cost of Living is getting an encore run — on the bigger Samuel J. Friedman Theatre stage, no less, and at a moment in time when community is more important than ever.
"It's about class and economics and how people need each other," Mozgala continued. "Within this four-person cast, you see an incredible diversity of culture and diversity of experience, and how those overlap and how those are in conflict with each other. It's a powerful play that is moving, heartfelt, funny, and will challenge audiences in the best way."
Cost of Living tells two stories in parallel. Blue-collar worker Eddie returns to care for his estranged wife, Ani, when she loses her legs in an accident. Wealthy Princeton grad student John, who has cerebral palsy, learns a thing or two about privilege upon hiring fellow Princeton alumna Jess as his caretaker.
Each pair separately discovers where giving and receiving care overlap, as they each need something from each other. The duos' stories eventually overlap, too, and the moment when they do makes the play a "ghost story," according to Majok. (To say more would spoil the show.)
Increasing disability representation
Cost of Living joins a short list of recent Broadway shows featuring disabled leads: 2019's Oklahoma! revival, with wheelchair user and Tony winner Ali Stroker as Ado Annie; 2018's Children of a Lesser God revival, in which the main character is a deaf woman; 2015's Spring Awakening revival, produced by the Deaf West company with both deaf and hearing actors. It joins another short list — including Wicked, Children of a Lesser God, The Miracle Worker, The Elephant Man, Wait Until Dark, and Whose Life Is It Anyway? — of Broadway shows with physically disabled characters in the script.
Plus, Cost of Living joins the shortest list of all: Broadway shows in which these characters are actually played by physically disabled actors. (Children of a Lesser God is the sole other.) Mozgala has cerebral palsy (the role of John was written for him), and Katy Sullivan, who played Ani on and off Broadway and in London, was born without legs. Both actors said that, before encountering Cost of Living, they'd never seen their disabilities represented on stage or screen.
"Growing up, wanting to be an actor, I didn't have anyone to point to and say, 'Well, that person did this, so I can too,'" Sullivan said. Mozgala echoed that, hoping Cost of Living will inspire people on Broadway and beyond, even after the limited run ends on November 6.
"The play can only be seen by people here in New York, but the play is published," Mozgala said. "So some young kid in the middle of the country, or somewhere out there in America, is going to be able to read this play and say, 'I see myself. There's a place for me in this world, in this business.'"
And they won't just see characters defined by their disabilities; they'll see full human beings. Ani is a witty, stubborn Jersey girl who insists she doesn't need Eddie, but her tough shell hides a deeply sensitive interior.
As for Mozgala's character, "John is an incredibly complicated, intelligent, funny person," he said. "He comes from great wealth and great privilege and obviously, he's dealing with some physical issues and a disability that that makes navigating life and the world a little more complicated, but he's someone who won't be denied. He's someone who demands that he participate. That is something I feel close to in my own life."
Telling working-class stories
The remaining two Cost of Living characters, Jess (Tony nominee Kara Young) and Eddie (David Zayas), represent another rarely staged perspective: the working-class immigrant experience. John makes the most of the opportunities his education, gender, and skin color afford him — perhaps to a fault — but Jess, a Black working-class woman, represents the flip side: the reality that the same education isn't a guarantee of success. Even with a Princeton education, she's taking on multiple service jobs and sleeping in her car.
"The kind of education she has is supposed to set her up for a ticket for life," Young said of her character. "In actuality, she's struggling. A lot of people have found themselves in this predicament after working their darndest, their hardest. She's working to survive at this point."
And then there's Eddie, a truck driver whose employment also falls through, and who has something else important missing: Ani. She pushes him away at every moment he tries to rebuild their connection. "He has a need to try and change to make himself better, even though sometimes he doesn't have the emotional capability of getting there. He's just a guy with a big heart and who's made a lot of mistakes and is trying for a little redemption... to be with the woman he loves."
Moreover, the character's more brash side (he has to be able to go tit-for-tat with Ani, remember) reminded Zayas of his dad, a blue-collar city worker. "[My dad] had a very direct way of communicating, sometimes not always tactful," Zayas said.
Such comparisons are evidence of how rich and relatable these characters can be to anyone. Majok was inspired to write Cost of Living after losing her own father figure, and she drew on her two years of experience as a caregiver, and on disabled acquaintances of hers, to write the diverse group of characters that would soon form Cost of Living.
"[Cost of Living] has a double meaning," Majok explained. "The characters are dealing with a lot of economic insecurity... [but also,] what is the risk that you are taking in trying to live a more profitable, fuller version of your life? To me that is being with people, connecting with people, and sometimes there's a deep emotional cost and risk to reaching out to somebody to feel that fullness."
In other words, Cost of Living is a show, above all, about the human need for others, something that makes these characters' seldom told stories universal. After all, isn't tangible human connection why people go to the theatre, too?
Photo credit: Jeremy Daniel
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