The Broadway Theatre Review: MTC’s Cost of Living
“That’s from the Bible,” he tells us, as the complications stream out, jumping backward in order to get to the moment that would bring us full circle. To a place where “holidays are hard” and the drinks are on this grieving man. The pain of loneliness sits real and strong on that barstool and we can’t help but be pulled into his orbit. We wonder how he got to this place where there is nowhere to hide, and we feel for his journey even when we, and he, knows the ghost texts aren’t true.
It’s a compelling, emotional beginning; these messages (not) from a dead wife, signaling the complicated sorrow that exists within. This is his cost of living and loving. The monologue, put forth pitch-perfectly by David Zayas (Broadway’s Anna in the Tropics), delivers us completely to the net that was supposed to be him. That’s the lesson in love and attachment, and what is basically at the heart of Manhattan Theatre Club’s solid and engaging production of Martyna Majok’s Cost of Living.
The intimate and seductive play revolves itself forward, delivering two scenarios that resemble each other, but are weighed down by different functions and connections. We try to string together these scenes with each other, and with the one that opened up this strongly crafted play by Majok (Sanctuary City) that was awarded the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Drama after a celebrated run at MTC’s Stage I, but the gaps in that net are too widely spaced. The fascinating part of this puzzle is that we have complete faith that this deeply personal exploration of the human condition will find its way home and that Brooklyn bar, and that we will be rewarded for maintaining that faith.
Directed with a sharp focused empathy by the phenomenally wise Jo Bonney (NYTW’s An Ordinary Muslim), Cost of Living is at the heart of this two pronged revolve, with one side occupied grandly by a young man named John, played strongly by Gregg Mozgala (Public’s Teenage Dick), a PhD student with cerebral palsy who hires a tense and desperate Princeton grad by the name of Jess, played heroically by the exceptional Kara Young (magnificent in Broadway’s Clyde’s). Jess has some struggles that hang with weight on her small frame. She tells John that she is currently working several jobs to keep a float, but this is the cost she has taken on, or been thrust into, it’s hard to know exactly. But their connection is palpable from the moment he decides to hire her to care for him, which she does with an openness and care that is deeply touching.
Unrelated to that, the other half of the revolve belongs to the man we were earlier introduced to and an angry woman named Ani, played to perfection by Katy Sullivan (Goodman Theatre’s The Long Red Road). Zayas’ Eddie, a DUI-suspended truck driver arrives to engage with Ani, his estranged wife, for reasons that are quite hard to distinguish. It feels like guilt and some sort of deep shame, possibly connected to the fact that Ani has lost the use of her limbs in an accident of some sort. We lean into their interactions that are filled to the brim with resentment, anger, and concern, but the lines drawn are hard to make out. It fills us with curiosity and the two, in their fiery exchanges, have me in the palm of their talented hands almost immediately.
For that reason, we lean into their profane interactions with a level of wonder that is unmatched by the other half, at least initially. Their attachment is intense, yet somehow fascinating to untangle, while the other side of the revolve seems to be getting more complicated and tangled with every turn. Neatly coordinated to keep us tuned in, the dynamics of both of the entanglements surge forth on a set designed with clarity by Wilson Chin (Broadway’s Pass Over), with impeccable lighting by Jeff Croiter (Broadway’s Bandstand), costuming by Jessica Pabst (Red Bull Theater’s Mac Beth), and sound design by Robert Kaplowitz (MTC’s Skeleton Crew) with original music composed by Mikaal Sulaiman (Broadway’s Thoughts of a Colored Man),
Majok doesn’t sentimentalize a soul on that stage, including John and Ani, who live with disabilities; one congenital, the other acquired accidentally. Her writing neither fetishized nor uses them or their bodies as a cheap function of plot. But treats them honestly and with a sharpness that is utterly engaging. “It’s fucking retarded,” John states, like a splash of cold water on the face of an awkward Jess as she struggles to find the correct language to describe him. “I’ve never worked with the differently abled.” This attempt doesn’t go over well with John. And his response tells us all we need to know about him, her, the others, and the play in general.
All four actors are superb, delivering intense attachment to one another in the most compelling of ways. We are enthralled by their dynamics and abilities, making our heart pound with excitement or panic when the poetry of Majok’s play demands it. I’ve never heard a crowd gasp for air so deeply as I did during that one moment of submersion and that other moment of dismissal, mainly because the play, and these actors have taken us inside the space so completely. The emotional core lives strongly; in the way they care, for each other and for themselves, and not always in the best of all possible ways. It spins us around, unleashing us to the elements that will either sting or starve. They are all struggling in their own off-to-the-sides kinda way, pushed to the extreme by love, pride, attachment, obliviousness, and fear. Each somehow almost slipping through the holes in their safety net, unlocking and displaying the coldness of the world, without losing the empathy that Majok has for them all.